Can You Get Cancer from the Occasional Cigarette?

Wondering on behalf of nonsmokers who sometimes smoke but really aren't actual smoker-smokers.

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Aug 18 2016, 12:00am

Logo by Kitron Neuschatz; image via Shutterstock

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this new column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.

The scenario: Your friend is always bumming cigarettes at parties because buying her own would make her an actual smoker.

The hope: That they're only cancer sticks if she smokes a significant number of them.

The reality: Light smoking is better than heavy smoking, but to paraphrase Smokey Robinson, a taste of tobacco is worse than none at all. Much worse. Sorry.

As it turns out, smoking doesn't result in what scientist-types might call a dose-response relationship, wherein your risk would inch up incrementally with each puff you take. No, the hard reality is that even low levels of tobacco exposure seem to have about 70 percent of the ill effects that smoking heavily has, per an analysis of the research on intermittent smoking.

Women who smoke between one and four cigarettes per day are five times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers are; men are three times more likely. One or more a day also gives you a way higher chance of developing esophageal and gastric cancer—140 percent to 325 percent of the average person's risk.

Hold up, your friend might protest, I'm just a social smoker who definitely has less than one a day! Well. While there isn't a ton of research on the 41 percent of American smokers who dose less frequently than once a day, the existing data suggests that "the adverse health outcomes [for this group] parallel dangers observed among daily smoking, particularly for cardiovascular disease."

There's also the unfortunate but real possibility that your friend is a carcinogen sponge. "Some people are built to retain more carcinogens, so they don't get eliminated from the body as quickly," Alexander Prokhorov, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told VICE. "Without knowing whether your genes put you at higher risk for a smoking-related disease, being a social smoker is like playing Russian roulette. There's no such thing as a safe number of cigarettes."

What to do: If your pal has graduated from smoking like Leo to lighting up only occasionally, pat her on the back and tell her to keep cutting back. But if she's just starting to smoke, even if it's only piecing it on weekends, start percolating on a quitting strategy.