Just a few cigarettes a day is enough

Risk of death from lung disease and cancer is already significantly increased in low-smoking populations


Even a few cigarettes a day disproportionately increase the health risk. © tonkovic/ thinkstock

Even a little can be harmful: Even those who are not chain smokers are putting their health at risk, as a long-term study has now confirmed. According to the study, even so-called social smokers are twice as likely to die of lung disease and more than eight times as likely to die of lung cancer as non-smokers. These include people who smoke less than ten cigarettes a day. The risk of developing lung cancer is apparently not significantly lower for them than for heavy smokers.

For many smokers, it’s hard to give up the cigarette completely. Here’s why the trend is more toward smoking fewer cigarettes per day. "For example, in the U.S., the percentage of smokers who smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day has increased from 16 to 27 percent," says study leader Pallavi Balte of Columbia University in New York.

Does smoking less help your health?

"Everyone knows smoking is unhealthy, but it’s easy to assume the risk isn’t as high if you smoke just a little," Balte says. "So we wanted to study the risks for social smokers compared to nonsmokers and to heavier smokers."

To determine the risks, the scientists used data from a long-term study of 18.730 U.S. citizens and evaluated them. The average age of the subjects was 61. As strong Smokers Balte and her team categorized people with a consumption of more than 20 cigarettes per day, as occasional or social smokers those with less than ten cigarettes per day. Deaths from respiratory diseases or Lung cancer were classified according to established criteria.

More deaths even among low smokers

The evaluation showed that 649 people died from respiratory diseases such as COPD and 560 from lung cancer during the course of the study. More smokers than non-smokers were among these deaths, and there was also an increased proportion of low smokers. Their share was 3.3 percent for respiratory diseases and 4.7 percent for lung cancer. For non-smokers, on the other hand, the percentages were 1.8 and 0.6 percent, respectively.

According to the study, even smoking less than ten cigarettes a day significantly increases the risk of serious respiratory diseases and lung cancer. In the study, social smokers were 2.5 times more likely to die from respiratory disease and 8.6 times more likely to die from lung cancer compared to nonsmokers.

Compared to heavy smokers, this reduces the health risk only slightly: Although social smokers consumed less than half as many cigarettes per day, their risk of death from respiratory diseases was 49 percent of that of heavy smokers, but for lung cancer it was 71 percent, the scientists report. Heavy smokers accounted for 12, 9 and 10.1 percent of deaths from lung cancer and respiratory diseases, respectively.

"Disproportionately harmful"

"You might think that if you only smoke a few cigarettes a day, you avoid most of the risk. But our findings suggest that social smoking is also disproportionately harmful. Smoking is dangerous, whether you are a heavy smoker or a social smoker. So if you don’t want to die of lung cancer or respiratory disease, it’s best to stop doing it altogether," Balte classifies her findings. (European Respiratory Society International Congress, 2020)

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