Life Science: Party Smokers Could Be At More Risk Than Heavy Smokers

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We all know those people (or maybe you're one of them) who say: “I only smoke at parties”, “I only smoke when I’m drinking” or “I’m a social smoker”. Well, that may not necessarily make you immune to the risks that come along with smoking. A new study by BMJ finds that light smokers may be at more of a risk of disease  than heavy smokers that have recently quit.

About half of the people that have only a few cigarettes a day don’t consider themselves smokers and don’t believe that it actually poses a risk to their health, so they don’t tell their doctors. This makes light smokers more easily overlooked in studies about smoking until recent years. The study showed that the effects of light smoking, which for all intents and purposes will be described as people who smoke 10 cigarettes or less a day, is not thoroughly understood by the public. Smoking just one cigarette a day increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by between 48 and 74 percent.

When you smoke a cigarette, there’s a whirlwind of things that happen to your body. That first puff of smoke enters your nasal passages, damaging the mucous lining. The heat and tar from the cigarette cause your lips, tongue, teeth and gums to darken and creates wrinkles on your face. It kills all the good bacteria in your mouth that protect you from having rancid breath as well. Once the smoke enters your throat, it leads to dryness and irritation which makes for a hoarse voice and a cough. It weakens your oesophageal sphincter muscle which is responsible for keeping the contents and acids of your stomach well, in your stomach. When this weakens it can cause this acid to rise into your throat causing GERD (Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease), ulcers, etc.

Once it reaches your lungs, this is when it does the most damage. It’s a slow, long-term, process where your cilia, hair-like structures in the respiratory system that are responsible for cleaning and filtering out debris, become damaged. The cilia move mucous, bundled with undesirable debris, out of the body and over time in people who smoke, these become damaged or non-existent. That’s where smokers cough comes from. It’s just a bunch of infected mucous stuck inside your respiratory system and your body’s best efforts to get it out without cilia is to just let out a nice phlegmy cough.

Yet, people still smoke cigarettes because it provides them with such a feeling of euphoria. It elevates your mood, alleviates bad moods and improves concentration. But the more you smoke, the more your nerve cells become immune to those pleasurable effects, so you smoke some more.

In 2016 it was estimated that over 37.8 million adults smoke cigarettes in the United States but our pack-a-day smokers are decreasing. It was reported by Gallup that only 26 percent of smokers were at a pack-a-day. The percentage of smokers in the states hasn’t gone down but number of heavy smokers has. This is due to the light smoking trend.

The effects of smoking I’ve mentioned earlier still occur in light smokers, they just take effect more slowly than in heavy smokers. The National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted a literature study of light smokers compared to non-smokers and found a multitude of health defects. They found that light smoking carries just about the same risk for cardiovascular disease that daily smoking does. The rate of ischemic heart disease, which is the narrowing of the arteries so much so that less blood and oxygen are able to reach the heart, becomes three times that of a nonsmoker. This can lead to heart attacks and strokes. The risk of death from aortic aneurysm is nearly three times greater in light smokers than in nonsmokers as well. Your rates of lung cancer increase 23 times in men and 13 times in women compared to nonsmokers.

Even in a study where they monitored over 23,000 men and 19,000 women that only smoked one to four cigarettes a day, both sexes were associated with a significantly higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease. Women who smoke between one and four cigarettes a day have five times the risk of developing lung cancer and men three times the risk.

But for people who have been heavy smokers in the past and quit cold turkey they’re better off health-wise. In one month of quitting cigarettes completely, your lung function already begins to improve with the cilia reforming and flushing out mucus, increasing your lung capacity so you can really feel that full deep breath without coughing as much. This helps you run longer without a terrible increase in heart rate.

After five years your arteries and blood vessels widen again so that all of the blood and oxygen can get to your heart, this lowers your risk of a stroke or heart attack. After 10 years, your risk of developing lung cancer and actually dying from it are cut in half from those that smoke at all on a regular basis, even lightly. And finally, after 20 years it’s as if you’ve never touched a cigarette. Your risk of developing lung disease and cancer resembles that of someone who’s never smoked a day in their life.

Even for people who are ‘only social smokers’, this social lifestyle does not make you immune to wrinkles, discolorations, phlegmy coughs and diseases, that heavy smokers obtain. Imagine if you were a social smoker for 10 years. The body doesn’t discriminate how many times you’ve smoked across 10 years, just that you’ve been a smoker for 10 years. Maybe doctors should stop asking “Are you a smoker?” and change the question to “Do you use any tobacco products on a daily, weekly, or social basis?”.