Health Risks of Smoking Start with Just a Few Puffs

Study that links smoking and disease finds that a single cigarette boosts heart disease risks.

September 8, 2009

Putting out that one cigarette will do more for your heart health than you realize.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The down economy has led to the first increase in smoking rates in 10 years. And if you're part of that trend, the health risks of smoking could be killing your heart, even if you smoke only a cigarette or two a day. A study published in the medical journal Circulation has found that the most substantial increases in risk of death from heart problems occur with the first few puffs you take. Which makes quitting smoking entirely the surest way to protect yourself.


THE DETAILS: Researchers collected data on smoking and disease from a study conducted by the American Cancer Society in 1982. They pulled information on smoking history, alcohol use, age, weight, sex, marital status, and other demographics from surveys completed by adults over 30 who lived in a household with someone over the age of 45. That information was compared with death records to see who had died from ischemic heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and cardiopulmonary disease.

For more information about smoking, and how to quit, see:

How Whiskers and a Cold Nose Will Help You Quit Smoking
To Quit Smoking and Lose Weight, Look in the Mirror
Thirdhand Smoke: A Hidden Hazard for Kids and Babies
Smoke-Lead Combo Raises ADHD Risk
Save Your Brain: Avoid These 4 Bad Habits
Recession Raises Smoking Rates; Women’s Lungs at Extra Risk

Their study found that people who saw the greatest increase in their risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases were those who were exposed to the least amount of smoke. For instance, a person smoking less than three cigarettes per day would see a 64 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, compared to nonsmokers. But if that person jumped to smoking between 13 and 17 cigarettes per day, his risk would increase only another 3 percent, to 67 percent. Also surprising was the health risks to people exposed to secondhand smoke. Adults who smoke less than three cigarettes per day are exposed to 18 milligrams of dangerous particulate matter every day, while secondhand smokers are exposed to a minute fraction of that amount, 0.44 milligrams. Yet, even that tiny amount led to a 31 percent increase in the risk of death from cardiopulmonary disease, compared to people not exposed to cigarette smoke.

WHAT IT MEANS: People tend to treat smoking the same way they treat alcohol—cut back on the amount you consume, and you'll cut back on the health risks of smoking. But studies of smoking and disease show that's not the case with cigarettes. Which is why quitting smoking—not just cutting down—is so important. "With alcohol, the good news is that you can drink light to moderate amounts and it doesn't hurt you," says C. Arden Pope, III, PhD, lead author of the study and a professor of economics specializing in environmental epidemiology at Brigham Young University. "But that's not what's going on here. You either smoke or you don't, and not smoking is far better than smoking small amounts." He also notes that cutting back from 20 cigarettes per day to 17 wouldn't give you nearly the same reduction in risk as going from three cigarettes per day to zero. Per his findings, the first would cut your risk by 35 percent, whereas the latter would cut it by 64 percent.

And quitting smoking doesn't just help you; it helps everyone exposed to your particulate pollution. "This idea that it's a personal choice doesn't hold up," Pope adds. "For an individual who doesn't smoke but is exposed to a spouse that smokes on a regular basis, versus somebody that's not, they still get a drastic increase in cardiovascular disease risk."

Try these tactics to eliminate the health risks of smoking:

• Get free help. Given the mountain of data about smoking and disease, municipal governments have recognized the healthcare-related cost savings associated with quitting smoking, and they're eager to help. The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests checking with your employer, health-insurance company, or local hospital to find a free program to help you quit. Or, call ACS at 800-ACS-2345.

• Quit for Fido. If you live alone and can't drum up the enthusiasm to quit, consider your pet's health. Secondhand smoke has been linked to an increased risk of lymphoma in cats, and nasal and lung cancers in dogs.

• Resist the urge to "smoke responsibly". Pope notes that the tobacco industry has started pushing the idea of smoking responsibly, akin to the alcohol industry's warnings not to overindulge. That concept flies in the face of what we know about the health risks of smoking. "The only responsible smoking is not smoking," Pope says.

• Push for smoke-free restaurants. So far, only 24 states have enacted statewide smoking bans that include restaurants and bars, and considering that Americans eat, on average, 4.2 meals per week in restaurants, that's a lot of potential exposure to secondhand smoke—for you and for the staff. Attend a town hall meeting and (without shouting of course) ask your local officials to put a smoking ban on the ballot for this fall's elections.

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