‘Social smokers’ more than 8 times as likely to die of lung cancer

NEW YORK — Many people who only indulge in cigarettes on the weekends or at parties don’t consider themselves “smokers.” Social smokers often don’t see their occasional habit as a problem, or even a legitimate health concern. After all, how much harm could a few cigarettes each week really cause? Unfortunately, according to a new study, social smokers are very much at a higher risk of fatal lung complications than non-smokers.

Researchers from Columbia University conclude social smokers are more than eight times as likely to die from lung cancer. They’re also more than twice as likely as non-smokers to pass away from lung disease.

Who is considered a social smoker?

For the purposes of this research, a “social smoker” is defined as someone who smokes less than 10 cigarettes per day. Rather unbelievably, the research team says that social smokers’ risk of dying from lung cancer isn’t all that much lower than full-blown smokers (people who smoke 20+ cigarettes per day).

The study’s authors believe their work indicates cutting back on cigarettes, or even switching to e-cigarettes some of the time, just isn’t an effective way to mitigate the health risks associated with smoking.

“Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, but it’s easy to assume that if you only smoke a little, the risks won’t be too high,” explains study co-author Dr. Pallavi Balte from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, in a release. “Previous research suggests that people are cutting down on smoking, for example in the USA the proportion of smokers smoking less than ten cigarettes per day has increased from 16% to 27%. So, we wanted to study the risks to social smokers compared to people who don’t smoke and compared to heavier smokers.”

‘Best action is to quit completely’

This study was conducted using a multi-ethnic data sample of 18,730 U.S. residents with an average age of 61 years old. Subjects were tracked for an average of 17 years. During that period, 649 people passed away due to respiratory disease, while 650 died from lung cancer.

Regarding non-smokers within that sample specifically, only 1.8% died from a respiratory disease and 0.6% from lung cancer. Meanwhile, 3.3% of social smokers passed away from lung disease and 4.7% from lung cancer. Predictably, heavy smokers fared the worst; 10.1% died from lung disease and 12.9% died from lung cancer.

After accounting for other, potentially influential mortality factors (age, sex, race, body weight, etc.), researchers compared death rates among the three smoking categories. They conclude that social smokers are 2.5 times more likely to die from lung disease than non-smokers, and 8.6 times as likely to pass away from lung cancer. For lung cancer specifically, the death rate among social smokers was only one third lower than the death rate among heavy smokers.

“Smoking is dangerous, regardless of whether you are a heavy smoker or a social smoker, so if you don’t want to die of lung cancer or respiratory disease, the best action is to quit completely,” Dr. Balte adds.

This research was presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress.

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