Smoking just a few cigarettes each day can damage your lungs

Smoking just a few cigarettes each day is just as bad for your lungs as burning through two packets

  • Columbia University experts tested the lung function of 25,000 volunteers
  • It declined 11.24ml/year more in heavy smokers – 30 a day – than non-smokers
  • The decline was 7.65ml/year among those who had five or fewer cigarettes a day

Light smokers damage their lungs just as much as addicts who go through two packets of cigarettes daily, a study has found.

Doctors behind the research at Columbia University now say lighting up a few of times each day is ‘much riskier than a lot of people think’.

They tested the lung function of 25,000 volunteers, a mixture of smokers and ex-smokers, as well as adults who had never puffed on a cigarette.

Results showed the lung function of heavy smokers – defined as smoking 30 a day – declined at a rate of 11.24ml per year more than non-smokers.

In comparison, the rate of decline was around 7.65ml per year among the lighter smokers, who had fewer than five cigarettes a day.

Doctors behind the research at Columbia University now say lighting up a few of times each day is ‘much riskier than a lot of people think’

Experts calculated that light smokers lose the same lung capacity over one year that their heavy smoking counterparts do in nine months.

Lung function is a measure of the amount of air a person can breathe in and out. It declines naturally with age, starting in the 20s.

Lead author Dr Elizabeth Oelsner said: ‘Smoking a few cigarettes a day is much riskier than a lot of people think.

‘The difference in loss of lung function between someone who smokes five cigarettes a day versus two packs a day is relatively small.

‘Everyone should be strongly encouraged to quit smoking, no matter how many cigarettes per day they are using.’

Results also proved the decline in lung function caused by smoking does not return to normal within a few years of giving up the deadly habit.

Ex-smokers see a decline in function of 1.57ml per year and this does not return to zero for at least 30 years, the researchers claimed.


People in England now smoke 1.4billion fewer cigarettes each year than they did at the beginning of the decade, according to a study published in August.

Research suggested tougher rules on cigarette packaging and advertising, as well as the indoor smoking ban, have worked.

Around one in seven people in England smoke – but the study found they used 24 per cent fewer cigarettes than people did seven years ago.

The average number of cigarettes smoked each month fell by 118million per month between 2011 and 2018, amounting to 1.42billion fewer each year.

Dr Oelsner said: ‘There are anatomic differences in the lung that persist for years after smokers quit and gene activity also remains altered.’

The results of the study, which involved academics from a handful of institutions, were published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

In a separate warning, the team also said light smokers may face a greater risk of killer lung diseases than previously realised.

Regular cigarette smokers have long been known to be at risk of the incurable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Smoking is the biggest avoidable cause of cancer. It produces chemicals which cause at least 15 different forms of the disease. 

People are drawn to smoking because nicotine can make them feel good, but it’s easy to become addicted and very difficult to quit once smoking becomes a habit.

Around 7.4million people in the UK regularly smoke tobacco, along with about a billion people – mostly men – worldwide.

Government initiatives to cut smoking rates have been introduced regularly over the past 15 years in the UK.

Health warnings on packaging became mandatory in 2002, adverts were banned in 2003 and smoking indoors was banned in 2007.

Officials followed up the measures in 2017 with a policy that meant all branded packaging had to be replaced with plain greenish-brown boxes.

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