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Your Casual Cigarette Isn’t Much Better Than Full-Time Smoking

A new study suggests that just a few over the weekend is enough to substantially increase your chances of getting lung disease.

by Sam Nichols
04 November 2019, 4:57am

Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA via AFP

You’re sitting in a beer garden, three drinks in, when a faint ribbon of cigarette smoke wafts in your direction. It’s a smell you usually hate, but not now. In this particular moment you find it aromatic and kind of alluring, and you turn around to see a huddle of people brandishing cigarettes in that cool, sexy way you admire. Maybe you used to smoke, or maybe smoking is just something that you do after a drink— because what’s the harm in a dart?—so you go over and humbly bum a smoke that burns your throat and spins your brain, but is probably fine.

And it is fine, right?

Well maybe not. A study published by the Lancet last month compared lung function between former and current smokers against the lungs of people who’d never smoked. What they found was that lung function often declines in people who only occasionally smoke, and lung function often continues to decline in people after they’ve quit.

As the study, authored by Dr. Elizabeth C. Oelsner of Columbia University’s Division of General Medicine, reads: “some data suggest that lung function decline normalises with smoking cessation; however, mechanistic studies suggest that lung function decline could continue.”

Dr. Oelsner and her team observed this unfortunate trend after studying 25,352 people in the US who’d had at least two proper spirometry exams on their lungs, and then following up with the subjects on an average of seven years later. After examining the data, Dr. Oelsner and her team found that the rates of lung disease in those who were smokers or had previously smoked were (surprise!) drastically higher when compared to those who’d never smoked. Perhaps an obvious point, but this also included those who had cut down their smoking and even those who had quit smoking for decades.

Yet the most surprising observation was how smoking infrequently isn’t a whole lot better than smoking every day. According to the data, those who smoked less than five cigarettes a day—so imagine yourself smoking half a pack over a weekend—experienced (on average) 32 percent less lung function decline than those who smoke at least 30 cigarettes a day. In other words, people who smoke half a pack every two days are only 32 percent healthier than people who smoke a big deck of cigarettes every day.

Dr. Oelsner’s study presents an interesting point: that while the risk of lung disease increases depending on the amount you smoke, any exposure to tobacco smoke is likely to be damaging, regardless of frequency. In fact, this study suggests that smoking 35 cigarettes or less a week is five times more likely to boost your chances of getting lung disease than smoking none at all.

“Former smokers and low-intensity current smokers have accelerated lung function decline compared with never-smokers,” writes Dr. Oelsner, adding that “these results suggest that all levels of smoking exposure are likely to be associated with lasting and progressive lung damage.”

Which means that the next time you’ve had a few drinks, maybe try some self-restraint. Because that middle-ground approach you’ve been taking is still enough to make you very sick.

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