The only safe and healthy number of cigarettes to smoke is zero.
When it comes to trends in Americans’ smoking habits, there’s a lot of good news. The number of adults who smoke has been steadily declining for decades, a pattern that also holds for teenagers. However, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of young women who smoke very little is on the rise.
Published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the report is based on a survey of nearly 10,000 women aged 18-25. In addition to asking respondents about their smoking habits, the authors also examined their attitudes about the risks of smoking in general, other substance use, and socioeconomic factors.
What they found is that nearly 20 percent of young women report “very light smoking,” which the study defines as five cigarettes or fewer smoked per day over the previous month. Compared to both women who had never smoked and those who were heavier smokers, very light smokers were more likely to be unmarried. Their habits of other substance use, including binge drinking, were similar to those of women who smoke more heavily.
All in all, women who are very light smokers seem to fit the description of “social smokers,” people who don’t really consider themselves smokers despite a consistent pattern of tobacco use, and perceive themselves to be relatively immune to the risks commonly associated with smoking. “I only smoke when I drink” or some other qualifier often characterizes how such smokers define their habit.
This new study shows that young women who are very light smokers fall between non-smokers and heavier smokers in terms of their perception of risk. Unsurprisingly, compared to heavier smokers they recognized it as more of a health risk, but less so than their peers who had never smoked at all.
The truth is that smoking cigarettes is undeniably bad for you, even infrequently and in small amounts. Very light smoking increases the risk of various cancers, most significantly of the lung. Even though heavier smoking raises the risk most substantially, even smoking 1-4 cigarettes a day increases the risk of lung cancer in women by five times.
With regard to cardiovascular health, the ill effects of very light smoking are even more pronounced. The relationship between how heavily a person smokes and the risk of related heart disease doesn’t fall neatly along a straight line. The increase in risk is steepest between zero cigarettes per day and only 1-4 and flattens out afterward, and smoking as few as 4-7 cigarettes a day has about 70 percent of the cardiovascular effect that comes with heavier smoking.
The CDC study does not offer much by way of explanation for why the rate of very light smoking is increasing among women, though it does suggest that targeted advertising may play a role. A somewhat encouraging finding is that women who smoke very lightly are more aware of the risks of smoking than those who smoke more heavily, which may make them more amenable to cessation efforts than others.
For whatever reason, however, women who smoke only a small amount on rare occasions are still putting themselves at risk for preventable illnesses. Social smokers are smokers, full stop.