If you’re one of those people who smoke just a few cigarettes a week — say, on the weekends when you’re out with friends — a new study shows that you’re not escaping the health risks of tobacco.
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The study, by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), shows that people who consistently smoked an average of less than one cigarette per day over their lifetimes had a 64 percent higher risk of earlier death. Those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had an 87 percent greater risk.
Researchers reviewed questionnaires from more than 290,000 older adults and looked at their history of cigarette smoking and cause of death.
They looked at two groups — one that smoked one cigarette or less per day and one that smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day. The researchers then compared both groups to people who had never smoked.
Particularly striking was smoking’s link to lung cancer for the infrequent smokers. The group that smoked less than one cigarette a day over their lifetimes had nine times as high a risk of dying from the disease than nonsmokers, while those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had a 12-fold increased risk.
Smoking is risky for your health whether you smoke a little or a lot, the researchers concluded.
A growing proportion of U.S. smokers now smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes per day. That proportion will likely rise in the future, the study says.
Medical researchers and health care providers traditionally viewed this level of low-intensity smoking as a temporary practice among people who are trying to quit, the study says. However, research indicates that many low-intensity smokers maintain these smoking patterns for many years over their lifetime.
Smoking duration is a substantially more important factor for disease risk than the number of cigarettes per day, the study says.
Underestimating the risks
Many people, particularly those who are younger, erroneously believe that smoking a few cigarettes a day or a week is fairly safe, says pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD. Dr. Choi, who specializes in thoracic oncology and critical care, did not take part in the study
“These people, unfortunately, may be substantially underestimating the health consequences,” he says.
Regardless of how many cigarettes you smoke each day, it’s important to kick the habit, Dr. Choi says. Light, long-term smokers who quit were able to lower their risk of death – and the younger they were when they quit, the better, the study says.
“This kind of study highlights the importance of long-term effects,” Dr. Choi says. “Even when you smoke a little bit; over the weekend or once or twice a week, the study is showing that that is not safe and the sooner you try to quit, the better.”
It’s helpful to have research that can show the health risks of smoking just a few cigarettes a day, Dr. Choi says.
No safe level
“The study shows that there was no safe level of smoking,” Dr. Choi says. “Even the people who smoked only one or less cigarette a day had increased cause of death compared to people who never smoked.”
Dr. Choi said the results of the study are an important message to parents too, as parents who smoke are more likely to have kids who smoke. Likewise, parents who don’t smoke are more likely to have kids that never begin smoking.
The study’s complete results appear online in the journal Jama Internal Medicine.