For those who find it too hard to quit cigarettes cold turkey, the strategy is often to cut back instead -- perhaps even to as little as one cigarette per day.
Now, new research published this week in the medical journal BMJ shows that this cutting back may not improve health as much as many people might think. In fact, this study suggests that smoking just one cigarette a day carries approximately 50 percent of the added risk of developing heart disease and stroke that comes with smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
It’s new research that counters what many people have previously thought: that smoking less means proportionately fewer risks to their health.
To investigate the effects of smoking one cigarette a day, researchers at the UCL Cancer Institute at University College London looked at 141 former studies that examined the risk of stroke and heart disease associated with smoking one, five or 20 cigarettes per day.
Their results show that men who smoke one cigarette per day have a 46 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 25 percent higher risk of stroke when compared to a nonsmoker. For women, the results were even more staggering -- a 57 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 31 percent higher risk of stroke compared to nonsmokers.
These results suggest that in order to truly reduce the long-term risks of smoking cigarettes, cutting back might not be good enough -- and the only effective measure is to quit entirely.
Principal study author Allan Hackshaw, deputy director of the University College London Cancer Trials Centre, said he was personally motivated to conduct this study given his many friends and family members who have cut back on -- but not quit -- their smoking habits.
“For people who smoke, they should try to use whatever help they can find in order to quit -- even if that includes using e-cigarettes -- if it leads them to quit completely,” he said.
“I hope people can use this information in a positive way that encourages them to stop smoking entirely.”
Experts not involved with the study said the findings are important. Dr. John Spangler, professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said one could think about the results of the study in terms of a car accident.
“If you could choose, do you want to be hit by a freight train or a minivan?” Spangler said, adding that when it comes to smoking just one cigarette a day, “Yes, it is less risky, but it’s still very risky.”
“If a patient says to me, ‘I want to quit smoking 20 cigarettes a day, but I think I can only cut down to one [cigarette] a day,’ I tell them that there is some harm reduction,” Spangler said. “But you also don’t want to let them off the hook with just one cigarette a day since that causes many problems.”
As for the benefits of quitting completely, Hackshaw noted that such a strategy can even help reverse much of the damage caused by decades of smoking within just a few years.
“By stopping altogether, people can get rid of most of the risks they acquired over the years from smoking cigarettes,” he said.
To learn more about safe and effective measures to quit smoking, call 1-800-QUIT or make an appointment to talk with your doctor.