Could one cigarette a day kill you?

Not considering yourself a smoker because you occasionally take a puff? Think again.
Not considering yourself a smoker because you occasionally take a puff? Think again.

If you think having just one cigarette a day won't do any harm, you're wrong.

British researchers say lighting up just once a day is linked to a much higher risk of heart disease and stroke than might be expected.

The bottom line: "No safe level of smoking exists for cardiovascular disease," wrote the team led by Allan Hacksaw, of UCL Cancer Institute at University College, London.

Quit fully

"Smokers should quit instead of cutting down, using appropriate cessation aids if needed, to significantly reduce their risk," the study authors said.

And it's a warning to the young that even so-called "light" smoking carries a heavy price, one expert said.

No such thing as ‘lighter’ smoking

Young adults "often smoke lesser amounts than older adults", noted Patricia Folan, who directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health, in Great Neck, New York.

"These lighter-smoking young adults frequently do not even consider themselves smokers," she said, but they are still at "risk of developing coronary heart disease from smoking even a small number of cigarettes."

For the new study, Hackshaw's team looked at data from 141 studies. Since the average cigarette pack contains 20 cigarettes, the researchers expected that the risk of heart disease or stroke for a 1-cigarette-per-day smoker would be just 5% of that of a pack-a-day user.

Risk of heart disease

But that just wasn't the case. Instead, men who smoked just one cigarette a day still shared a full 46% of the increased odds for heart disease that a heavy smoker had, and 41% of the risk for stroke.

And women who smoked one cigarette a day had 31% of the pack-a-day smokers' increased risk of heart disease, and 34% of their increased risk of stroke, Hackshaw's group said.

When the researchers focused on studies that controlled for several other risk factors, they found that smoking just one cigarette a day still more than doubled women's risk of heart disease.

The study was published on 24 January in The BMJ.

Many health problems

"We have shown that a large proportion of the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke comes from smoking only a couple of cigarettes each day," Hackshaw said in a journal news release. "This probably comes as a surprise to many people. But there are also biological mechanisms that help explain the unexpectedly high risk associated with a low level of smoking."

Dr Rachel Bond directs Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She agreed that "no amount of smoking is safe".

She said that quit-smoking efforts can work, but "true success is to avoid [initiating] tobacco exposure altogether".

How to quit smoking

In South Africa, 17.6% of all adults smoke tobacco, with men four times more likely to smoke than women. Out of current tobacco smokers, 29.3% have already been advised to quit smoking by their health practitioners, according to a previous Health24 article.

Is it time for you to kick the habit to the curb? Here’s what you can do:

  • Lay off the booze too, as social drinking situations may encourage you to smoke.
  • Get support from your family and friends.
  • Combine quitting smoking with exercise, as studies show that those who exercise are more likely to successfully quit smoking.
  • Don’t hesitate to use medication, as prescription drugs to help you quit have improved.
  • If smoking is your way of coping with stress, find alternative ways such as meditating to help you cope. 

Image credit: iStock 

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