Cigarettes: Just One Can Be Harmful

According to a recent study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, smoking just one cigarette stiffens the arteries of young adults by a staggering 25 percent. Arteries that are stiff or rigid increase resistance in the blood vessels, making the heart work harder. The stiffer a person's arteries, the greater the risk for heart disease or stroke, said Stella Daskalopoulou, M.D., Ph.d., assistant professor of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal and the study author.

The study measured the arterial stiffness in smokers and nonsmokers ages 18 to 30, both at rest and after exercise. To establish a baseline measurement, the smokers in the study, who smoked five to six cigarettes a day, were asked to stop smoking for 12 hours before their first exercise test, which was comparable to a cardiac stress test, which measures the heart's response to the stress of exercise. Before the second exercise test, smokers had one cigarette each and then repeated the stress test. For the final test, smokers were asked to chew a piece of nicotine gum before taking the stress test.

The results showed that after the first stress test, the arterial stiffness levels in the nonsmokers decreased by 3.6 percent. In the smokers, however, the arterial stiffness levels increased by 2.2 percent and after the nicotine gum, they increased by 12.6 percent. After one cigarette, levels increased by 24.5 percent.

"In effect, this means that even light smoking in otherwise young healthy people can damage the arteries, compromising the ability of their bodies to cope with physical stress, such as climbing stairs or running to catch a bus," said Dr. Daskalopoulou.

Smoking contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increases the risk of developing blood clots, reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood and raises blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, a smoker's risk of developing coronary heart disease is two to four times greater than a nonsmoker's. Cigarette smoking also combines with other risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. Plus, exposure to second-hand smoke raises the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.

Tips for Quitting Smoking

The health benefits of quitting smoking can be felt immediately-just 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drops. Here are some tips to help you quit smoking:

  • Set a date for quitting
  • Change your smoking routines, for example, keep your cigarettes in a different place; think about how smoking makes you feel
  • Smoke only in certain places, such as the outdoors
  • When you have a craving for a cigarette, wait a few minutes and try doing something else like chewing gum or drinking a glass of water
  • Talk to your doctor about whether nicotine gum or a nicotine patch can help