Heart disease is just one cigarette away

We all know people who light up a cigarette or two when they’re out for drinks or after a particularly stressful day. Maybe you’re one of them. After all, it’s easy to let an occasional puff slide. There’s really no harm — it’s not like you’re chain smoking a pack a day, right?

But according to one new study, this is a dangerous misconception. And it could have devastating consequences for your heart health.

This meta-analysis used data from nearly 150 studies. And the results — which appeared recently in the British Medical Journal — tell a shocking story. Because from the outset, researchers had predicted that smoking a single cigarette daily would carry only five percent of the cardiovascular risk associated with a pack-a-day habit.

But their results showed that, in reality, just one cigarette accounts for a whopping 46 percent of the coronary heart disease risk that smoking poses to men. And 31 percent of the risk to women. For smoking-related stroke risk, the news was just as bad — with just one cigarette per day carrying 41 percent of the risk for men, and 34 percent of the risk for women.

And let’s be clear — the risk of a single cigarette is only this low compared to a pack-a-day habit. If you want the really ugly truth, just look at how it stacks up to never smoking at all.

That’s what these researchers did. And they found that even one daily cigarette was linked with a 74 percent spike in heart disease risk for men, and 119 percent for women. In contrast, smoking 20 cigarettes per day — that’s a full pack — increased heart disease risk by as much as 127 percent in men, and a jaw-dropping 295 percent in women.

So it’s true that a cigarette now and then may not be quite as dangerous as smoking them by the pack. But there’s absolutely nothing “safe” about it. And the risk to your health is huge, any way you slice it.

The message here is clear: It’s simply not enough to “cut back.” Sure, this may help to mitigate some of the cancer risk. (And for many smokers, that’s probably the fear at the forefront of their minds anyway.) But in order to protect your heart — to which the danger is just as great — you need to ditch cigarettes completely, and for good.

This is such an important point. Because while we’ve done an amazing job of getting people to reduce smoking — not least of all by making it harder for them to light up in public places — getting them to quit fully can still prove to be a challenge.

And to be honest, I haven’t really pressured my patients who only smoke occasionally. But that’s about to change. This is stunning proof that cigarettes represent an all-or-nothing threat. And everyone should know just how much is at stake.

Especially since the adverse effects to your heart health settle in fast — and the impact can be devastating after just two or three years of smoking. Luckily, though, that risk disappears entirely soon after you quit. (Unlike your cancer risk, which takes years to start approaching a non-smoker’s level.)

The jury is still out on vaping and e-cigarettes. (Although preliminary evidence isn’t exactly reassuring.) But if it’s not clear by now, it should be: The only safe choice is not to smoke at all.