They completed a questionnaire in 2004-2005 detailing their smoking use, and reported deaths were tracked until the end of 2011. Of these people, over 22,000 are current smokers, over 156,000 are former smokers, and over 111,000 never smoked. And those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had an 87 percent higher risk, the findings showed.
In addition, among current smokers, the age at which they started smoking was linked to an increased risk of smoking-related death, Nash said.
In an interview with MedPage Today, Inoue-Choi said the findings make it clear that all smokers can benefit from smoking cessation, including those who are light or intermittent smokers. "Smokers would have been less likely to have lived long enough to enter our study than never-smokers, such that our relative risks for smoking may be underestimated", they wrote.
In this context, the NCI study is a much-needed reminder that even smoking a small number of cigarettes is significantly harmful to one's health. The results of the study were reported December 5, 2016, in JAMA Internal Medicine. The results come from asking elderly people about their smoking habits during life; most of the participants were 60 to 80 years old and white. Norman Edelman, a senior medical consultant to the American Lung Association.
When looking at cause of death, the researchers found a particularly strong association with smoking and lung cancer mortality.
Yet, the health effects of this "low-intensity smoking" have not been well studied.
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Patricia Folan directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y. She said, "My experience with low-intensity smokers is that they often don't consider themselves "real" smokers". The risk of premature death also decreased proportionally with the age when these smokers quit.
People who smoked between one and 10 cigarettes a day had over six times the risk of dying from respiratory diseases than never smokers and about one and half times the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease than never smokers.
A growing proportion of American smokers are now smoking fewer cigarettes per day, and it is estimated that the number of low-intensity smokers will rise in the future.
Researchers relied on participants remembering their smoking histories over many years, a limitation of the study, because memories often aren't accurate. Hence, the researchers could not compare the effects of smoking every other day, every few days, or weekly, for example.
The scientists also lacked data on more detailed smoking patterns, such as the smoking frequency among low-intensity smokers.
This research was funded by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.
Smoking rates have plummeted in the US and now only about 15 percent of USA adults smoke - and just 11 percent of high school students smoke.