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Is social smoking causing more damage to us than we think?

ByFaith Franzwa

Jan 21, 2019

Does smoking a limited amount really avoid the serious ill effects of smoking cigarettes? Research presented in the Journal of American College Health reports that university students at least think it does.

But in reality, not a lot of conclusions have been reached. Here’s the relevant information:

The amount of tobacco consumed and the rate of cardiovascular mortality does not have a linear relationship. In other words, smoking a limited amount still significantly increases your risk of heart problems. And that’s not all, a paper by Glantz et. al reported (from a release by the US Surgeon General) that low levels of exposure have large risks for “lung and gastrointestinal cancers, lower respiratory tract infections, cataracts, compromised reproductive health, and osteoporosis.” Despite Glantz’s observations, there is not necessarily a need to panic. The definition of low levels of exposure is variant but typically seemed to be around 1 to 4 cigarettes per day, long into adulthood. Many social smokers don’t intend to smoke past college and smoke less than 1 to 4 a day. The tricky thing is that social smoking is relatively new to research, because social smokers often don’t identify as smokers and because longitudinal studies (studies that follow people their whole lives) don’t exist yet. So it’s unclear what exactly the effects are, though it is clear that nondaily smokers are at a much higher risk for tobacco-related diseases than nonsmokers. And, while daily smoking is still decreasing, nondaily smoking is actually increasing.

A more optimistic, study looked at how the age of quitting effects health. If you smoke your whole life you lose on average 10 years. Quit by 40 and you lose 1 year. Quit by 30 and you lose 1 month. While predicting one’s end of life like this is a little terrifying, it may be of comfort to youthful, intermittent smokers, who often intend to quit much earlier and smoke much less. The younger you can quit the better it is for your body. But, evidence suggests that those who are nondaily smokers are much less motivated to quit than daily smokers. This is because, again, they don’t believe that the low levels they smoke at will be damaging to their health and so may go on to intermittently smoke for years to come.  New research suggests that smoking a little bit for a long time is worse than smoking a large quantity for a short time because your lungs start to lose their ability to heal with increased age.

But, early death isn’t the only adverse effect. Smoking decreases fertility rates and can increase the likelihood of miscarriage; it increases chances of cataracts; people can lose their sense of smell and taste; it can trigger asthma; degrade your teeth; and a slew of other things. On top of this, the onset of these effects does not wait until you’re old. And it should be noted that secondhand smoke affects people around smokers in many of the same ways as if they were smoking themselves.

Typically, smoking cessation programs (to help facilitate quitting) are directed toward daily, heavy smokers, however now that social and intermittent smoking is becoming so prevalent, cessation programs will have to start to include non-daily smokers as well. Alcohol actually does increase the enjoyment of a cigarette, which is probably why lots of social smokers start to crave them only when they’re drunk and so cutting back on alcohol is recommended as a way to cut back on smoking.

71.5 per cent of smokers are said to regret ever having started smoking and want to quit. And while there is warring evidence on this point, researchers have found that those who smoked intermittently were more likely to smoke heavily in the future. With such an increase in social smoking, more research will be done to study the particular health effects on social smokers, but the conception that low-level smoking is devoid of ill effects is, unfortunately, a misconception.


Image: Denis Defreyne via Flikr

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