Am I going to die of lung cancer?
June 18, 2009 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I smoke a cigarette a day during the work week. I've been doing this for a few months now. Am I going to die of lung cancer?

I don't think this is a habit i'll keep up if I ever left my job, since I smoke with my coworkers. I only smoke with them, if I happen to catch them when they are going down for a smoke. As such, I smoke no more than 5 cigarettes a week. How much damage am I doing to my body?

Yes, I know this is a stupid habit.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, obviously you should stop (and not just because it's a bad habit, but also because the longer you carry on smoking occasionally the harder it's going to be for you to quit) but there's really no telling if you're going to die of lung cancer.

Maybe, maybe not. Stop now and then you won't have to worry about it :)
posted by wild like kudzu at 2:14 PM on June 18, 2009

It's very unlikely that you'll die of lung cancer. But what is certain is that you'll reduce your lung capacity and make yourself more prone to certain respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Think of the cigarette as a lottery ticket. The more you smoke, the more your chance of winning (and in this case the prize is cancer). Personally I wouldn't worry too much; statistically most smokers don't die of lung cancer, and if your sample includes only those who smoke one or two a day, the odds are going to be a lot lower.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:19 PM on June 18, 2009

Quit now, while it's still easy. I quit while still a "light smoker" and it wasn't so hard compared to my friends who have struggled with it, in some cases for years.
posted by JoanArkham at 2:20 PM on June 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

You probably want to google the term "social smoking." I got a lot of results about the relative risks. I tend to be really skeptical about smoking studies (duh, it's unhealthy, but when we get into little nitpicky things like how much or how long or how many it's tough to isolate other factors, and these tests often are on a small sample size, and there are documented cases of both health authorities and cigarette companies fudging results). However, these two articles about a study done at the University of Georgia might interest you.

“We wanted to determine whether occasional smoking can impair flow-mediated dilation and found that repeated bouts of cigarette smoking — even if classified as occasional — appear to increase the risk for developing cardiovascular disease in otherwise healthy, young people.”
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:20 PM on June 18, 2009

You may not get lung cancer, but you're three times as likely to get it.

Even outside of the health risk at low consumption, there's the risk that you will become a heavier smoker later. Yes, right now you're only smoking one a day, but I can't tell you how many people I know who started as social smokers and ended up smoking a pack a day. It sneaks up on you.
posted by Willie0248 at 2:21 PM on June 18, 2009

Stop now and then you won't have to worry about it :)

Nonsmokers get lung canger too.
posted by applemeat at 2:22 PM on June 18, 2009

A Dr. friend turned me on to the concept of pack-years.

It also depends on your age and whether you live in an urban area (as far as damage and statistics go).
posted by Tchad at 2:25 PM on June 18, 2009

There is a kind of smoking, one that many would say is a "worse" kind (usually caught when it's too late, harder to treat) that pretty much only happens in smokers. It's less common than the other type, that can affect non-smokers as well (but is much more common in smokers, of course).

People tend to fixate on lung cancer as the main/only reason not to smoke. This leads to people saying that lung cancer isn't that common and so people shouldn't make such a big deal out of it. COPD (emphysema) is a pretty shitty way to die, too, and once you have it, it's pretty much irreversible. All of the smokers I know get sick way more often than the non-smokers. They take weeks or months to kick respiratory and sinus illnesses while everyone else recovers much more quickly. These people probably smoke way more than you do, but basically, quitting now will be nothing but beneficial.

One cig per day shouldn't be too hard to quit (comparatively), especially since you're already able to go 2 days without smoking at all. Try going more days without smoking and see how long you can go. You may be one of those people who can quit without any kind of outside assistance. Good luck!
posted by ishotjr at 2:38 PM on June 18, 2009

God, where is my brain. A kind of cancer, not a kind of smoking. Sorry!
posted by ishotjr at 2:39 PM on June 18, 2009

How much damage am I doing to my body?

More than you would by not smoking, and that's about as sure as anybody can say.

I used to work with a stop smoking team, and honestly five a week isn't a lot, especially when you've been doing it for only a few months. Statisitically your chances of lung cancer and COPD increase even just at one a day, but I'ld be lying if I reckon you'll be crippled at 50 and dead at 60 just from smoking. It's more a case of realizing that so many things detract from your health as you age, but the discretionary nature of smoking makes going smoke free a (fairly) quick and easy way to better maintain your health.

Yes, I know this is a stupid habit.

Hey, first step already taken! But seriously, you know you're damaging your body, and you're choosing to do so for social reasons. It's probably a good idea to work out a way to stop nipping out for cigarette breaks with co-workers, and so deal with it before you start smoking more habitually outside this situation. Maybe just changing your routine a little will make catching workmates less likely, or even asking them not to invite you could work. I'm sure you have better ideas how to figure it out though.
posted by Sova at 2:39 PM on June 18, 2009

Quit now, while it's still easy. I quit while still a "light smoker" and it wasn't so hard compared to my friends who have struggled with it, in some cases for years.

I favorited this, but want to repeat it for emphasis.

I was a light social smoker and thought I could quit anytime. It took me nearly ten years. It sneaks up on you. I was never a heavy smoker--at my heaviest, I smoked four or five cigarettes a day. And it was tremendously difficult to give it up. I can still tell a difference in my health a year after quitting, and I wish I'd never started. Failing that, I wish I'd quit when it wouldn't have been so difficult--like right around the time I first started making excuses that I didn't smoke that much, knew it was a stupid habit, only smoked around my smoker friends, and could quit anytime.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:44 PM on June 18, 2009

You'll also be £80 odd a year better off, and that's assuming you do just stick to one a day which, as others have pointed out, is not something you want to rely on.
posted by fearnothing at 2:47 PM on June 18, 2009

Am I going to die of lung cancer?

Maybe. Maybe you'll stop and die of lung cancer, and maybe that lung cancer will be completely unrelated to your brief smoking career. Maybe you'll become a three-pack-a-day smoker and not die of lung cancer.

You are, as others have said, increasing your statistical risk of contracting lung cancer. And you may be increasing your statistical risk of other issues like emphysema.

But it's up to you what your assessment of the risk/reward ratio is. I stopped smoking because it was bad for me and didn't add anything superfantastic to my life. I didn't stop drinking, because I felt it added a number of superfantastic things to my life.

This article about how to evaluate health risks might be helpful to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:48 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is how habits get started. I started smoking sporadically, lightly, just as a social thing.

Ten years later, after increasing and cutting back and increasing and cutting back and giving up a few times and shit, I was smoking a pack a day.

By regularly taking an addictive drug in a rewarding setting (social) you're laying the groundwork for an increased habit down the line. Stop now, while it's easy. It won't be later.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:50 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

(In other words, there is more risk than just the damage caused by your current consumption; there's also the possibility of damage if you can't stop the way you think you can).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:51 PM on June 18, 2009

i_am_joe's_spleen is right -- if your body and brain chemistry is such that you are susceptible to nicotine addiction, you could likely end up very sorry down the road. It's hell to quit smoking once your body requires it.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:10 PM on June 18, 2009

I started socially, and occasionally on the shop floor when the shit was flyin'. Then I bought my own, but left 'em at the bar. Then I started keeping them with me. Then I was doing construction, smoking a pack a day.

It fucking sucked. Stop now.
posted by notsnot at 3:18 PM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

A pack a month doesn't strike me as any more harmful than eg. living in Beijing.

I live between two freeways and all the powdered tire rubber and general soot that collects on window sills tells me that my current air is none-too-clean.

But yeah on the habit thing. Nothing good can come from starting a bad habit.
posted by @troy at 3:33 PM on June 18, 2009

I don't know the specific risks associated with having 1 cigarette a day for the rest of your life, but I think you are likely greatly underestiminating the chances that your 1 cigarette a day habit won't increase very slowly over time. I feel like I know several people who smoked next to nothing for 2 to 3 years and then there was a life change and it was half a pack a day on stressful days, then half a pack every day and on and on. The increase was very slow, over the process of may 5 years, but I wouldn't just be exposing yourself daily to one of the most addictive substances on earth and expect yourself never to get hooked.
posted by whoaali at 3:35 PM on June 18, 2009

I was like you. I quit. I'm a lot happier now.
posted by dubitable at 3:38 PM on June 18, 2009

You're increasing your likelihood of having the various health problems associated with smoking, but how much is hard to say without taking into account your other risk factors and even then it's hard to be sure.

Quitting smoking now greatly reduces your risk of eventually having one of these diseases.

But there's so much more to it than that...

Smoking during the work-week suggests you find your job to be stressful and/or find it difficult to socialize without cigarettes. Maybe you work with assholes, maybe you're in a high pressure career, no matter what the case lacking a coping or socialization strategy other than smoking may place more stress on your body than the cumulative stress of smoking.

I think more so than quitting (not a bad idea) you ought to look at what creates the drive to smoke for you and just generally learn how to cope with that in ways you can feel alright about.

Without purposefully adopting and refining some sort of alternative way to do the things cigarettes help you do you may well find yourself adopting some other strategy you don't much care for.

I'm no doctor though, I'm just a neurotic part-time half-quit smoker.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:51 PM on June 18, 2009

The problem with smoking is that it is such an awesome thing to do. If it weren't so bad for you, I would still smoke; there are very few things I like more in this world.
Unfortunately, it is terrible for you. Like ridiculously terrible. Benzo(a)pyrene, which is among the more potent mutagens known to man, is present in cigarette smoke. It's not alone.
Quitting smoking when you really smoke is hard and it sucks and you don't want to do it. Missing smoking once you've managed to quit is no fun, either--you can never trust yourself to have a couple of drinks and not smoke again.
Finally, don't kid yourself about only smoking one time a day, not ever having your own cigarettes (which is rude, btw), etc. Nobody starts out smoking a pack a day. Every smoker ever has started with one here and there, then slowly graduated to smoking more and more.

In short, I don't recommend smoking at all.
posted by willpie at 3:54 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I forgot where I saw the statistics, but the chance of a heavy smoker dying of lung cancer is something like 15%, and the chance of a nonsmoker dying of lung cancer is something like 1%. So my guess is... your chances of dying of lung cancer would be somewhere in between there, and probably towards the lower end.

Why not hang out with your coworkers and, I don't know, drink a coke or have a snickers or something like that instead?
posted by losvedir at 4:01 PM on June 18, 2009

Chiming in with those who say quit while it's relatively easy. It's not just the lung cancer, either. My dad (somewhat overweight, started smoking as a teen) died of a heart attack at age 45, and this is in a strikingly long-lived family. I've also watch friends struggle with quitting, and these folks were in their mid-20s at the time.

You already know it's a dumb thing to do. While it's still just about the social, find some replacements that have the same meaning. Grab a cup of coffee or something so you have something to hold while standing around talking.
posted by epersonae at 5:06 PM on June 18, 2009

My dad (somewhat overweight, started smoking as a teen) died of a heart attack at age 45, and this is in a strikingly long-lived family.

I'm sorry about your dad. His death at such an early age of heart attack was not necessarily related to his smoking, though; risk factors are statistical, not individual. He might just as probably (in terms of the risk factors present for men that age in the developed world) had a heart weakened by viral myocarditis, or a congenital heart defect, or an undiagnosed aneurysm.

My mom died of a heart attack at age 42, very unusual for her family, most of whom lived until their 90s. She was a heavy smoker; she also had long-undiagnosed Cushing Syndrome and a heart weakened by a life-threatening case of scarlet fever in childhood. Discerning how much of a role each of these factors played in her death would have required an autopsy at a much finer level of granularity than anything the local coroner would have provided.

I say this not to give you a hard time, or to be an apologist for smoking, just to point out that our folk intuitions about causes of morbidity and mortality tend to be pretty approximate.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:37 PM on June 18, 2009

Another link that says that if you are a non-smoker in the US your chances of dieing of lung cancer is about 1/100.

The article says you elevate your chances by between 12-20% if you smoke. Other links posted indicate that you raise you risk by about 3 times.

So, it elevates your risk from 1/100 to either 1.1 or 1.2 or possibly to 1/30.

But there are plenty of other ways that smoking can get you, so you overall risk will be higher.

The article posted by Sidhedevil on risk is well worth reading.
posted by sien at 6:17 PM on June 18, 2009

I used to smoke. A co-worker who didn't smoke would join us other smokers on break to socialize. Kind of as a joke, he would hold an unlit cigarette so he wouldn't feel like the odd man out. One day was particularly stressful for him, and when he joined us outside, he asked me if today he could hold the whole pack.
posted by QuakerMel at 8:46 PM on June 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm really not sure why everyone is offering you all these anecdotes, theories, approximations, etc. The information is available in black and white, peer reviewed and all.

Here are the top three google results for "risk of 1 cigarette a day": one two three.

That took me 3 seconds. I'm sure you can find more information if you try. Combine it with Sidhedevil's link and you can make your own decision.
posted by no1hatchling at 11:05 PM on June 18, 2009

I asked almost the same question (worded differently) previously.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:20 AM on June 19, 2009

Ex-smoker here. There really is no way of saying whether you will die of lung cancer or not regardless of how much you smoke, but your risk has gone up considerably by your actions.

I have to say that when I smoked I hated people like you who could just smoke on cigarette a day. I had to smoke a pack or more. This is purely anecdotal, but most people that I know who quit (including myself) were heavy smokers; the one a day folks are really good at deluding themselves. Having said that, don't think of yourself as stupid for smoking. I wasn't any more stupid when I smoked but my quality of life was worse, but it took quitting for me to realise that.
posted by ob at 10:52 AM on June 19, 2009

Questions from someone who struggled to quit for 15 years - and finally succeeded:

How does smoking make you feel about yourself? Your message suggests it makes you feel kinda stupid. Does it? Do you want ot keep doing something that makes you feel stupid? ...self-destructive? One perspective that helped me finally get the monkey off my back was the question, "Do I want to live the rest of my life or die the rest of my life?"

Are you using the cigs as a vehicle to feel a part of the group that takes these smoking breaks together? Feeling that one belongs is a basic human need. Can you think of another way you can be part of the breaks without smoking? Could it be your coffee break? Powerbar break? Vitamin water break? You'd actually be doing your coworkers a favor by not imitating, and thereby supporting, their addictive behaviors. At the end of the break, you would have done something which increased your well-being, whereas they will have done something corrosive to theirs. This would not go unnoticed, and could have a profound affect on the group psyche over time. People might even privately begin to consider joining you in a vitamin water (or whatever) as a substitute for the cigarette they'd prefer not to be smoking.

There's also the dependency aspect. The last couple of years I smoked, I was only smoking when I visited neighbor friends and bummed a cigarette. I made a point of visiting once a week. Obviously, at this point, my physical addiction was likely minimal, if anything. But the psychological dependency was very controlling. Thoughts of when I would ask for a cigarette hovered in the foreground of my mind throughout the visit. Finally I realized that I was still being controlled by my dependency on cigarettes, which made me feel weak and disappointed in myself.

Then, the epiphany: I only need to be stronger than one little rolled up stick of dried leaves. I proved that I was, and soon the desire faded. I've not had a cigarette since.

Also worth mentioning. Cigarette smokers stink. I did, though I wasn't conscious of it. When I finally quit and started to find the smell of cigarette smoke disgusting, I wondered how non-smoking friends and boyfriends managed to put up with me.

Bottom line: if smoking makes you feel less good about yourself, dump it. Love yourself as well as you want others to love you.
posted by sparrowdance at 11:44 AM on June 19, 2009

Here's the primary source for the articles no1hatchling linked to. It looks pretty convincing.

More anecdotally: I smoked somewhat less than this for two or three months (2-5 cigarettes a week). My breathing was noticeably more congested at the time, and less so after I stopped. The smell does cling to things in ways that aren't obvious when you're used to it. Also, I still have occasional cigarette cravings even a couple of years later.

On the balance, I'm happy that I smoked for a while--it's an extremely pleasant experience--but also that I stopped early. I had a pretty easy time quitting, which has not been true for people I know who smoked for longer. So don't beat yourself up about it, but do know that you'll feel healthier if you quit, even in the short term, and that quitting will be easier now than it would be later. And the long term health risks are real
posted by moss at 4:05 PM on June 19, 2009

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