NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Most people know that smoking causes lung cancer, but an even greater number of smokers will develop obstructive lung diseases like emphysema. As Dr. Max Gomez reports, there’s a new test that detects the disease before any symptoms appear.

Ralph Puckett learned he had emphysema last year. He had smoked most of his life.

“About 40 years, started when I was 15,” he said.

Emphysema destroys air sacs in the lung, making it hard to breath. That’s usually the first outward sign of the disease, but now researchers at Weill Cornell Medical Center have developed a way to find it with a simple blood test.

“This detects destruction of the lung very early before there is any symptom. What we found was that if you had very early emphysema, 95 percent  of people have a positive blood test,” said Dr. Ronald G. Crystal.

More study is needed before the blood test is approved for widespread use,  but Dr. Crystal said it could convince smokers to quit earlier.

“We can’t give you back those lung sacs you’ve lost but we can prevent you from losing more lung sacs and getting emphysema. And what we can do with that test is tell you, you’re going to get emphysema if you don’t stop smoking,” he said.

And that’s why Ralph quit cold turkey.

“I realized I’d better stop because they told me it’s not going to get any better, but if I stop smoking it won’t get any worse,” he said.

It’s not an easy thing to kick the habit, but Ralph is breathing easier.

Obstructive lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and almost all those deaths are due to smoking.

While many smokers still can’t or won’t quit, even with a test that says they’re going to develop emphysema, some might and that would save lives.

Long time smokers, especially those who are still smoking, would be the first to be tested since theyre at the greatest risk. Another group would be people who’ve had significant exposure to secondhand smoke.

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