"Smoking cessation represents the single most important step that smokers can take to enhance the length and quality of their lives," says Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello, who is helping to launch a new "It's Never Too Late to Quit" campaign. Sponsored by the federal government and private groups, including the American Association of Retired Persons, it is aimed at older smokers.

Of the 50 million Americans who still smoke, more than 13 million are over age 50 and 7 million are over 60. About 34 percent of men between the ages of 50 and 59 are smokers, as are 20 percent of males 60 and older.

For women, percentages are smaller: about 28 percent of those in their fifties smoke, as do 17 percent of women above 60. These older smokers consume an average of a pack a day but are more likely than younger people to smoke high tar and nicotine brands and to have smoked for a very long time: an average of 46 years, according to the Office on Smoking and Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Smoking is a major risk factor for six of the 14 leading causes of death in people over 60, officials say.

In my father's case, quitting cut his risk of a heart attack in half and reduced by one third the chance of a stroke. His risk of other diseases, including lung disease, ulcers and oral, lung, bladder and pancreatic cancer, is starting to decline -- but more slowly.

Like my father, older smokers are less likely to have tried to quit. Yet recent surveys show that the majority of smokers over 50 would like to stop. Those who have succeeded say they were motivated by concerns about their health and by a desire to take control of their lives.