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Obama's Health

Posted: 04/18/08 02:08 PM ET

The fact that Sen. Obama was a smoker is old news, since he quit. Right? Think again.

The stories that have explored this issue all missed the point: Obama's history of smoking raises questions about his current and future health.

Some, like Jake Tapper, have suggested that Obama was less than honest about whether he still smoked, at least as of last August.

Others have suggested that Obama's smoking history makes him "more human," and that his (alleged) ability to quit makes him more heroic.


And some, perhaps with tongue in cheek to this, think quitting may actually hurt him by changing how his voice sounds.

Meanwhile, Sen. McCain's health questions are almost as old as he is. Congressman Jack Murtha (75), thinks John McCain (71) is too old for the pressures of high office, and he has come under legitimate pressure to release his medical records.

But what of Senator Obama's health? It's not as if once you quit smoking, all of the health effects immediately disappear. In fact, after enough smoking, some health effects are irreversible. Consider just the arteries and lungs.

How long and how much one smokes makes a difference. A 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the amount of fatty deposits in the carotid artery depended on total pack-years of tobacco exposure, not whether the patient currently smokes. And a smoker's excess risk of a stroke doesn't return to that of nonsmokers until at least five, or as long as twenty years after quitting. Sen. Obama would have to serve a hypothetical four smoke-free terms before his stroke risk returned to normal.

So how long and how much did Sen. Obama smoke? The information has not been officially released, and the campaign has not returned calls or emails posing this question. But he smoked a lot over his life.

He admits to having smoked up to ten cigarettes a day, but usually closer to five or six. Most people underestimate how much they smoke, but let's take him at his word. Let's also assume he really did quit when he said he did, in February 2007 (although he admits to having fallen off the wagon). That's about twenty-six years, given that we know he was smoking by the time he was a freshman at Occidental College. That's more than 55,000 -- maybe 70,000 cigarettes! Has this aspect of Sen. Obama's ability to serve really been explored?

Just because he's young, looks great, and exercises doesn't mean he's healthy. Recall Jim Fixx. An overweight smoker when he turned his life around at thirty-five, Fixx became the icon of fitness. He quit smoking and started running. Then he died in 1984 at age fifty-three -- while running.

Sen. Obama, while not overweight, smoked a lot longer than Jim Fixx did. And while the stresses of running may have contributed to Fixx's death, it was his years of smoking, not his running, that caused the plaque to build up in his arteries. Doctors say the stress of being president may in fact exceed the stress of running. And it's an unhealthier kind of stress.

The public deserves to know how long and how much Sen. Obama really smoked. Does he have other risk factors for heart disease? Compared to whites, for instance, African-Americans are more likely to die of a stroke, according to the American Heart Association. This, in fact, is probably the only time race is a legitimate question to raise this campaign season -- and just one of several health question on voters' minds.