It’s been a common belief held by smokers for ages: Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day is bad—so if you cut down to just a cig or two, that’s much better, right?
Well, it might not be as helpful as you think: Smoking just one cigarette a day is linked to a surprisingly high level of health risks, new research published in the journal BMJ suggests.
In the meta-analysis, researchers crunched the numbers from 141 previous studies looking at the number of cigarettes people smoked and their subsequent health risks.
They discovered that men who smoked just one cigarette were 74 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease than nonsmokers were, even when the researchers adjusted for possible factors that could skew the results, like age and other heart risks like high cholesterol. Men who smoked 20 cigs a day—generally a pack—had more than double the chances of heart disease than nonsmokers.
As for brain health? Men who smoked just one cigarette a day were 30 percent more likely to have a stroke than nonsmokers were. Guys who sucked down 20 cigs a day had more than twice the risk of stroke as nonsmokers did.
While the excess risk of developing heart disease and suffering a stroke was lower for those smoking just one cigarette a day compared to a pack a day, it wasn’t as low as the researchers thought they’d be.
If you did the math, you’d expect that smoking one cigarette a day compared to 20 would give you 1/20 the risk, or five percent of the excess risk you’d expect from smoking a pack a day. Instead, they found that men smoking just one cig a day had almost half the risk of heart disease and just over 40 percent of the stroke risk that pack-a-day guys had.
The chemicals in cigarette smoke can damage the structure and function of your blood vessels, increasing your risk of arteriosclerosis, or the buildup of waxy plaque. Over time, this can narrow and harden your arteries, limiting blood flow and potentially leading to heart attack or stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The findings of this study suggest that simply limiting your cigarettes isn’t the answer.
“What this tells us is that people who smoke shouldn’t just cut down—they should aim to stop smoking altogether,” study author Allan Hackshaw, Ph.D., said in a statement. “There is no safe level of smoking.”
So make 2018 the year you finally quit smoking for good. Need some motivation to get started? Find out what really worked for three former smokers who finally kicked the habit.
And don’t worry if you’ve failed a quit attempt in the past, Michael Chaiton, Ph.D., told us previously. It might take you a few more times than you originally thought to become smoke-free for good. Something you can do to boost your odds of quitting? Don’t be afraid to combine quitting aids, like trying behavioural counselling along with meds like nicotine replacement therapy.
By Christa Sgobba