One Cigarette Too Many

Even One Cigarette Can Prove Lethal, U.S. Surgeon General Says

Her report emphasizes smoking’s immediate, powerful effects on lungs, heart

As little as one cigarette a day, or even just inhaling smoke from someone else’s cigarette, could be enough to cause a heart attack and even death, warns a report released Thursday by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin.

“The chemicals in tobacco smoke reach your lungs quickly every time you inhale, causing damage immediately,” Benjamin said in a statement. “Inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer.”

And the more you’re exposed, the harder it is for your body to repair the damage.

Smoking also weakens the immune system and makes it harder for the body to respond to treatment if a smoking-linked cancer does arise.

“It’s a really good thing when the Surgeon General comes out and gives a wide scope to the dangers of smoking,” said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “They’re looking at very small amounts of smoke and this is dramatic. It’s showing the effect is immediate and doesn’t take very much concentration. In other words, there’s no safe level of smoking. It’s a zero-tolerance issue.”

A Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease – The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease, is the first tobacco report from Surgeon General Benjamin and the 30th since the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report that first linked smoking to lung cancer.

More so than previous reports, this one focused on specific pathways by which smoking does its damage.

Some 70 of the 7,000 chemicals and compounds in cigarettes can cause cancer, while hundreds of the others are toxic, inflaming the lining of the airways and potentially leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a major killer in the United States. The chemicals also corrode blood vessels and increase the likelihood of blood clots, upping the risk for heart conditions.

Smoking is responsible for about 85 percent of lung cancers in the United States. But this report puts more emphasis on the link between smoking and the nation’s no. 1 killer, heart disease.

“This report went way beyond pulmonary issues, which people are all too familiar with, but got into cardiovascular risks,” Horovitz said. “We’ve known that even a few cigarettes a day could triple your risk of heart disease. If you have a 3 percent risk of cardiac issues, as a light smoker you could have 9 or 10 percent. That’s significant. It’s a little Russian Roulette.”

And the problems don’t stop there, the reported stated. Smoking cigarettes can interfere with blood-sugar control for diabetes and can help spur a range of pregnancy and birth-related problems such as miscarriage, low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Cigarettes are also getting more addictive, the report stated, with newer formulations getting the nicotine more quickly and efficiently from the lungs — where it first enters the body — to the heart and brain. Compounds other than nicotine that are added to cigarettes also help hook people in, the report said.

“The evidence clearly states that tobacco products are lethal weapons capable of shortening the lifespans of smokers and nonsmokers alike,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “However, tobacco companies will stop at nothing to addict a new generation of smokers.”

“We strongly believe the findings will support implementation of new federal tobacco regulations, including the development of graphic warning labels for cigarette packages,” she continued. “We also urge state officials to fund smoking prevention and cessation programs at CDC- recommended levels, enact strong smoke-free policies and boost tobacco excise taxes. Policymakers must not allow complacency to rule in the fight against tobacco. Bold, aggressive measures are needed to save lives, reduce the burden of disease and improve quality of life.”

More information

View the new report at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

SOURCES: Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Dec. 9, 2010, Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease-The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease

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