Your Health: Light smokers could need help quitting, too


Some smoke just a few cigarettes each day. Others smoke only on weekends, with certain friends or in certain places. The habits of light, occasional or non-daily cigarette smokers are so varied that experts have yet to come up with a single label for them – though the term “chippers” gets some use.

That term “comes from the world of heroin addiction,” says Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society. And, like people who use heroin only occasionally, people who smoke lightly, occasionally or socially pose something of a mystery.

“Other smokers don’t understand how they can do that,” says Richard Hurt, a physician specializing in smoking cessation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Researchers aren’t entirely sure, either, though they are increasingly motivated to find out.

Q&A: What you should know about Vytorin, Zetia

That’s because light or occasional smoking seems to be becoming more common, even as overall smoking rates decline or stabilize, says Stanton Glantz, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco.

Non-daily smokers on the rise

In a recent review in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Glantz and colleagues cite data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing non-daily smokers made up a rising share of smokers in 31 states between 1997 and 2001. By 2008, 20% of U.S. smokers were non-daily smokers, CDC reported Thursday. (CDC also said the overall smoking rate rose slightly in 2008, to nearly 21% of adults, but that it was too early to call it a trend.)

In California, which has strong anti-smoking policies, just 14% of adults smoked at all in 2007; 36% of them did not smoke every day, state health officials say.

In the past, light smokers were assumed to be new users on their way to heavier habits or longtime smokers attempting to quit. But it’s now clear that many people can sustain a light smoking habit for years, Glantz says.

And while light smoking is better for health than heavy smoking, it’s not good, the experts say.

“You can see abnormal blood vessel function after one cheap cigarette,” says Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. And, he says, “there’s no evidence that below a certain threshold you’re safe” from long-term effects, including heart and lung damage.

“There’s a cumulative effect,” Glynn says. “Every cigarette you smoke is bad for your health.”

Also, each time a smoker puffs in the company of others, he or she is spewing out toxins linked to asthma attacks, lung cancer and heart attacks in non-smokers. Light smokers just spew toxins less often. So-called social smokers are sometimes shocked to realize that their behavior may have the very anti-social effect of making other people sick, says Rebecca Schane, a physician and researcher working with Glantz. Focusing on that fact may help light smokers quit, she says.

But there’s been almost no research on what kinds of quitting strategies work for lighter smokers. “We don’t really know quite what to do with these people,” Glantz says. “All the (smoking cessation) guidelines and drug trials have been developed for heavy smokers.”

Still, many light smokers might have a nicotine addiction and could benefit from nicotine-replacement products, Hurt says. Even someone who smokes once a week – say, on bowling or poker night – might resist with the help of some nicotine gum and some counseling, he says.


Similar Posts:

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!