You've heard your friends' excuses before—or maybe they were your own excuses. "I only smoke when I'm drunk." Or even better: "I'm not addicted, so I don't have to worry about quitting." Sure, it'd be nice if you could enjoy the occasional puff without repercussions. But you can't, according to a study released today by the National Institute of Health (NIH). In it, researchers found that light smokers—those who averaged fewer than one cigarette per day over the course of their lifetime—were nine times as likely to die from lung cancer as those who had never smoked. When expanded to include all diseases, the odds of death for the casual puffers was 64 percent higher.
As we've reported before, occasional smokers seem to incur about 70 percent of tobacco's harm. And as you'd expect, the risk of disease goes up as you add cigs to your routine: The NIH study found that compared to abstainers, those who smoke between one and ten cigarettes a day are nearly 12 times as likely to die of lung cancer and six times as likely to die of respiratory diseases like emphysema.
The study draws on data from 290,000 subjects ages 59 to 82. Despite the large sample size, it has a couple notable shortcomings. One, it was based on self-reported smoking habits, which count on people to have a solid memory going back decades. And two, the respondents were mostly white. As the NIH press release notes, casual smoking has traditionally been more common among racial and ethnic minorities.
If you're thinking about giving up your occasional cigarette, now's the time. Quitting at any age can reduce your risk of dying prematurely, and If you have an Obamacare insurance plan, you're eligible for a free smoking cessation program.
So there you have it. You might think a few puffs at happy hour would be harmless, but the science says otherwise.