ADDICTION
December 16, 2016

Serious Health Risks Plague Even Light Smokers

People who smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day are not as safe as they might like to think.

If you are a light smoker who smokes fewer than 10 cigarettes a day, you may think you are immune from the health problems associated with cigarettes. Unfortunately, this is a false sense of security. Anyone who smokes any number of cigarettes daily will benefit from stopping smoking.

When low intensity smokers quit completely, the younger they were at quit time, the lower their risk of death.

These are the conclusions of a recent review published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The findings will hopefully be a wake-up call for smokers, their families and health care providers. While cutting down the daily number of cigarettes may be a useful transitional strategy, zero tobacco use should be the goal.

Researchers from the National Institute of Health used data from over 290,000 adults who were between the ages of 59 and 82 at the start of the study in 2004. They wanted to see how light, or low intensity, cigarette smoking affected the risk of death as compared to the risk faced by nonsmokers. They defined low intensity smoking as smoking 10 or fewer cigarettes per day.

Participants answered questions about their smoking behavior starting before age 15 and through age 70 and were followed through 2011. The causes of death for those who died were determined from health records. Other factors influencing mortality — such as sex, race or ethnicity, educational level, physical activity and alcohol intake — were also assessed and taken into account in the statistical analysis of the data.

People who had smoked an average of less than one cigarette per day, consistently over their lifetime, still had a 64% higher risk of earlier death from all causes than those who had never smoked. Their risk of dying from lung cancer was nine times that of never-smokers.

Among those who smoked between one and 10 cigarettes a day, the risk of death from all causes was 87% higher than those who had never smoked. They also had an almost 12 times greater risk of dying from lung cancer than non smokers, and a six-fold increase in risk of dying from respiratory disease such as emphysema.

When consistently low intensity smokers quit completely, the younger they were at quit time, the lower their risk of death.

There was a lack of diversity in terms of age, ethnic and racial background — the participants were mostly 60 to 70 years old and white. The researchers call for more study of other groups so that the implications of low intensity smoking can be broadened to other populations.

Still, the authors feel that their data support the conclusion that any tobacco exposure is risky. In the NIH press release accompanying the study, the lead author, Maki Inoue-Choi, summarizes: “The results of this study support health warnings that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke. Together, these findings indicate that smoking even a small number of cigarettes per day has substantial negative health effects and provide further evidence that smoking cessation benefits all smokers, regardless of how few cigarettes they smoke.”

Quitting smoking, while challenging, is an achievable goal. Strategies include therapy, medications, support groups, nicotine replacement therapies (like patches and gum) and telephone counseling.

Smokers may have to make several attempts to quit before being successful and may have to explore multiple options before finding a good fit. However, this study adds to the existing body of research touting the enormous benefits of quitting smoking. Talking with your doctor — or a friend who has quit — is a good place to start.

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