Half the patients in Hong Kong who have had a lung transplant to save their lives could have avoided the operation if they had not been a smoker, a doctor said yesterday.
The head of the city's lung-transplant programme, Dr Wong Chi-fong, said he was distressed when he saw people undergo so much suffering from something that was "preventable in the first place".
"The medical world has long pointed out the harmful effect of smoking," Wong, chief of service at the tuberculosis and chest unit at Grantham Hospital in Aberdeen, said.
"Still, many people think they will not face health consequences until they are old. It is then too late to regret the indulgence when they find their health is deteriorating."
Wong said the number of lung transplants was heading for a record.
Of 27 lung transplants done in Hong Kong since 1994, three were done this year. There were only three for all of last year, and only one or two transplants were carried out each year since 1994.
Half of the lung transplant patients suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - mostly the result of long-term smoking.
The others were born with rare lung problems.
End-stage COPD - a breakdown of the tissues of the lungs and airways - caused patients a great deal of pain and suffering compared with other illnesses as it affected the sufferer with every breath, Wong said.
A lung transplant is the only option for such patients, but the operation is rare because of the difficulty of finding suitable organs, and many die waiting for a lung.
Only about 20 per cent of lungs from potential donors are suitable because - while they may have healthy kidneys and livers - their lungs have often been damaged by pneumonia or artificial breathing support.
"I have seen too many patients feeling immense regret about smoking, but it was already too late," Wong said .
"Many people ignore the alarming signs of lung problems, such as phlegm, breathing difficulties or reduced mobility. They would rather blame these early signs on ageing rather than smoking.
"They should stop smoking while it is still preventable. Once they have developed COPD, the condition can only be slowed but not reversed."
While the demand for lungs persists, Wong said Hong Kong might try to increase the number of usable organs by a "reconditioning" process that pumps blood and solution into the removed lung.
The process, pioneered in Sweden and Canada and tested in Britain, can reverse the damage and make the lung transplantable. Overseas studies indicate it can increase the number of usable lungs by 40 per cent.