Is smoking three cigarettes a day as dangerous as a pack?
For "small" smokers, the number of cigarettes smoked in a day is counted on the fingers of one hand. But for your doctors, this low rate of smoking is as alarming as excessive consumption.
Smoking is bad for your health. If you are a small, medium or heavy smoker, are the risks of cardiovascular problems and cancers just as real?
According to scientific studies, the risk of having a heart attack or stroke is twice as low when you smoke one cigarette per day compared to the daily consumption of 20 cigarettes. That said, it doesn't take much to encourage a serious cardiovascular event. Small smokers who consume an average of 5 cigarettes per day are three times more likely to die of a stroke or heart attack than nonsmokers.
The number of years: a crucial parameter
Damage caused by tobacco is not only related to the number of cigarettes smoked per day. The number of years of smoking is a crucial determinant. Therefore, for the same number of cigarettes, smoking a little for several years is more damaging to the heart than smoking a lot for a short time. In other words, smoking a cigarette every day for 27 years (about 10,000 cigarettes) is more dangerous than finishing a pack every day for 15 months.
The cardiovascular system is really sensitive to tobacco toxins, such as carbon monoxide, which decreases the oxygen supply capacity of the organs and free radicals. "Even at very low doses, they act on platelets and promote their aggregation and, therefore, the formation of blood clots. They can also be the origin of arterial spasms," says Professor Daniel Thomas, a cardiologist. In parallel, they contribute to the appearance of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, which decreases the size of the vessels and promotes their obstruction."
Lungs attacked with each puff
In addition to these effects on the heart and vessels, low tobacco use also affects the proper functioning of the lungs. In the long term, a cough appears and breathing shortens. A recent study shows that the volume of air inhaled or exhaled by smokers with less than 5 cigarettes is less affected than that of heavy smokers, but it still decreases. Small smokers lose 7 ml of air each year, compared to 11 ml for heavy smokers. A disturbing observation since it suggests that they also face a risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a pathology caused by progressive narrowing of the airways, more important than previously imagined.
"The effects will be even more damaging since smoking started early because tobacco retards the development of the lungs," said Dr. Gerard Peiffer, a pulmonologist.
This deterioration in lung capacity is due to poisons in the smoke that attack the cells that line the nose, throat, and lungs. When deposited in the bronchi, these toxic substances from tobacco cause irritation and inflammation. These phenomena also form the bed of cancers, mainly lung cancer. The risk of this is multiplied by 10 to 15 for heavy smokers, while it triples for small smokers compared to non-smokers. However, the risk of getting cancer mainly depends on how long you have been smoking.
Reduction of consumption: a commendable but insufficient effort
In summary, smoking a few cigarettes a day is less risky than smoking one or more packs. The dangers are far from insignificant, even if we smoke little. The experts are clear: smokers who reduce their consumption do not protect their health.
"Cutting back is a good start. But you can't smoke safely, and the goal should be zero cigarettes," said Dr. Peiffer.
To achieve this, experts recommend accompanying this reduction with nicotine substitutes, Champix or the electronic cigarette. "Without help, a smoker who reduces their intake will take more puffs to absorb as much nicotine as before. Therefore, they will inhale as many toxic products and be exposed to the same dangers," explains Professor Thomas.