There is no safe level of smoking

WE’VE heard the warnings and we know the dangers. Smoking most definitely kills. 

There is no safe level of smoking

But does that really apply to those of us who enjoy the odd sneaky cigarette on a fun-filled night out? Surely the stress-reducing smoke we occasionally allow ourselves at the end of a long hard week at work doesn’t have the same impact on our lungs as the non-stop cigarettes consumed by more committed smokers? More of us appear to be convincing ourselves that this is the case.

The National Tobacco Control Office run by the HSE monitors the reported number of cigarettes smoked in Ireland on a daily basis.

In December 2013, it found that the overall prevalence of smoking in the country was 21.5%. This means that more than one in five adults is a smoker, a number that has been in steady decline since we introduced the smoking ban in public places in March 2004.

What is more interesting in the latest report to be published by the National Tobacco Control Office is the frequency of smoking —57.49% of all smokers describe themselves as occasional or light smokers. This means they smoke between one and five cigarettes a day (for occasional smokers) and between six and ten a day (for light smokers).

This is all part of a gradual shift towards lower consumption levels among smokers. It’s a trend we are seeing among celebrities too. The likes of Kate Moss, Lily Allen and Colin Farrell are often seen puffing on a cigarette. Lana Del Ray, who performed in the Marquee in Cork recently, dragged on a cigarette while she was on stage at Glastonbury. These unashamed smokers have now been joined by the queen of clean living Gwyneth Paltrow. Last year, she confessed to enjoying the occasional cigarette. Here in Ireland, the fresh-faced Glenda Gilson has been spotted indulging her nicotine habit from time to time too.

The list goes on and on. But what impact does infrequent smoking really have? Does it damage your health? Or is it simply a case of the health police getting all worked up about what actually is only a puff of smoke? Ash Ireland, the leading anti-tobacco advocacy organisation in the country, takes a strong stance on occasional smoking.

“There is no safe level of smoking. It is well established that people become addicted to nicotine after smoking for a very brief period,” says an Ash Ireland spokesperson.

“The general tendency is to become more reliant and to smoke more over time. The best advice we can give to the occasional smoker is to quit while they can. Addiction will eventually set in and then quitting will become much more difficult.”

The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society are equally emphatic. “Research by the British Heart Foundation found that smoking between one and four cigarettes a day triples the risk of heart disease,” says Chris Macey, head of advocacy with the Irish Heart Foundation. “This proves that smoking is not like alcohol. There is no safe threshold and smoking just one cigarette results in serious health risks.”

Kevin O’Hagan, health promotion manager at the Irish Cancer Society, agrees. “Even one occasional cigarette can cause damage. While decreasing the number of cigarettes being consumed is a positive step, it is quitting completely that will have the most positive impact on health.”

All of these public health bodies maintain there is no such thing as smoking without consequences. The only difference they see between a heavy smoker and an occasional smoker is the amount of time that needs to elapse before health problems emerge.

“All cigarettes contain vast numbers of chemicals, including nicotine which is a poison,” says a spokesperson from Ash Ireland. “There is no safe level of inhalation of the chemicals contained in cigarettes.

“It is established that a heavy smoker will experience greater health difficulties perhaps at an earlier stage than a lighter smoker. People should not ignore the health risks of smoking. It’s directly linked to a large number of cancers and is one of the four main factors contributing to cardiovascular disease. Not to mention that it rots teeth, damages our hair, makes skin drier, promotes wrinkles, stains fingers and fingernails, gives us bad breath and gives many smokers a persistent cough.”

Despite all of this, image-obsessed celebrities such as Liz Hurley, professional sportspeople such as Italian striker Mario Balotelli and even US president Barack Obama continue to smoke. Does the power of celebrity culture mean that they are influencing and encouraging our growing habit of indulging in the occasional cigarette?

Chris Macey thinks that this is a danger. “In the past 20 to 30 years, there has been huge progress in de-normalising smoking,” he says. “Think about it: when I was a child, you could buy sweets that were like cigarettes. You don’t see that anymore. But now there is a danger for re-normalising smoking. There’s an attempt to make it glamorous and cool all over again.”

E-cigarettes have had a part to play in this. Some of you reading this may have swapped your pack of cigarettes or roll-up tobacco for these. When they were first launched onto the market, they were said to help people trying to quit and were also supposed to represent a safer form of smoking. Since then, celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga have been seen smoking them.

While they certainly help in protecting others from the effects of second-hand smoke, Ash Ireland do not think that e-cigarettes have delivered on their original promises.

“Despite an initial hope that these products could be of assistance in regard to cessation, we are now forming a view that this product, which is being marketed forcefully by the tobacco industry, may become another addictive product with few benefits and little impact on smoking cessation,” says the spokesperson.

They point to the HSE’s decision to ban e-cigarettes in all of their facilities and to their banning in cities such as New York and Chicago as a sign that authorities are beginning to realise the risks associated with this new way of smoking.

“The lack of regulation in regard to manufacture, content levels and marketing of e-cigarettes is an ongoing concern,” says the spokesperson.

“They are being presented as an attractive item that is less harmful than tobacco on the one hand but on the other, they still carry highly-addictive nicotine and there is no research to prove that they help people to give up smoking.”

The Irish Heart Foundation is just as sceptical about e-cigarettes.

“It would appear that they are less harmful but we don’t yet know if they are safe,” says Chris Macey.

“They are created by tobacco companies and it’s in their interests to make smokers addicted. We are lobbying to have them regulated as products and for all advertising for them to be regulated too. Their aim should be to help people quit smoking, not to addict them to nicotine.”

The Irish Cancer Foundation urges smokers to use properly- regulated nicotine replacement therapies instead.

“Until regulation is implemented, we cannot be sure what is in e-cigarettes and therefore it is not possible to know if they are safe,” says Kevin O’Hagan.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Ireland, with 5,200 people dying every year. The Irish government spends up to €2 billion on treating tobacco-related diseases annually – five in every ten people who smoke will eventually die as a result of stroke, heart disease, cancer, emphysema or any of the other diseases that are directly linked to tobacco consumption.

No matter how impressed we are by celebrities who light up in public or how little damage we think we are doing by allowing ourselves the odd cigarette, the reality of smoking can never be painted as a pretty picture.

Thinking outside the box: what type of smoker are you and why?      

Cigarettes cost a fortune. They taste foul. Smokers stink and, in the long-term, become ill. Yet 21.5% of Irish adults smoke, and so do many celebrities. There are smoking tribes and we’ve identified them. To which one do you belong?

1. The secret smoker: the secret smoker goes to great lengths to hide their habit, for fear of how it might look to those around them. Members of this tribe have been known to hide their habit from their parents, for decades, continuing to smoke up the chimney long past their teenage years. Italian songstress, Carla Bruni, could be considered a secret smoker. She used to smoke unashamedly before she married, but started to smoke in secret once she became the ‘first lady’ of France.

2. The skinny smoker: years ago, people realised that nicotine could suppress the appetite and, ever since, some women have used cigarettes as a slimming aid. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen has said that she relied on cigarettes to stay thin when she first started in the modelling industry.

3The rebellious smoker: despite the obvious health risks, smoking continues to be associated with the rebellious outlaw. These are people who refuse to be told what to do by anyone. They simply won’t listen to the warnings of the health police or the tut-tutting of society at large. Kate Moss, Shane McGowan and Kate Winslet could be said to belong to this group. So too could Prince Harry, who breaks with all royal decorum by occasionally indulging in a cigarette in public.

4. The taboo smoker: these are the smokers who attract negative judgements. They include women who smoke while they are pregnant, and sick patients who leave their hospital beds and gather outside the A&E sections of hospitals to smoke a quick fag. You’ve seen them and you’ve probably judged them. Comedian Jennifer Saunders is one of their tribe. This year, she was spotted smoking a cigarette and encountered a very negative reaction from the media. Having recently celebrated her third anniversary after receiving the all-clear from cancer, Saunders’s shameless enjoyment of a cigarette was judged too much by too many people.

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