December 20, 2014
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Study: Cutting down on cigarettes cuts lung cancer risk

Not ready to quit smoking cold turkey? A new study shows that just cutting down on the number of cigarettes you smoke can reduce your risk of lung cancer.

Noting that "many smokers are unable or unwilling to completely quit smoking," a team of researchers from Denmark set out to determine the impact reducing the amount people smoke could have on their lung health. Their findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers looked at data from nearly 20,000 men and women who had undergone two physical examinations with five to 10 years between checkups as part of a larger study. At both exams, participants filled out questionnaires on their lifestyle habits, including questions about how much and how often they smoked. Former smokers were asked about past habits and the amount of time since they had quit.

At the first checkup, participants were categorized as heavy smokers (15 or more cigarettes per day), light smokers (one to 14 cigarettes per day), ex-smokers and never smokers. At the second visit, the researchers divided the participants into further categories: continued heavy smokers, reducers (reduced smoking from 15 or more cigarettes per day by a minimum of 50% without quitting), continued light smokers, quitters (quit since the first examination), continued ex-smokers and never smokers.

Between exams, 832 people reduced their smoking by at least 50%, with the average reducer going from 22.2 cigarettes per day to 8.5 cigarettes per day. More than 7,300 participants remained categorized as heavy smokers, smoking an average of 20 cigarettes per day at both exams. Compared to those who continued to smoke heavily, reducers were older, more likely to be male and had smoked slightly more and for a longer period.

Participants were followed from their second examination for an average of 18 years, during which time 864 people developed lung cancer.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that while consistent light smoking or quitting smoking after being a light smoker carried a bigger reduction in lung cancer risk, heavy smokers who managed to reduce their daily number of cigarettes from about 20 to fewer than 10 cut their risk by 27%.

But this finding doesn't mean that if you are a smoker your goal shouldn't still be to butt out altogether. The researchers note that other studies haven't found that reducing the number of cigarettes smoked per day cuts the risk of heart attack or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and they conclude that the focus should be on quitting, not cutting down.

"More data from long-term studies of smoking reduction are warranted, but for the present, smoking cessation and not smoking reduction should still be advocated as the ultimate method of reducing harm from smoking," they write.


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