June 25th, 2009
01:34 PM ET

Is an occasional cigarette that bad for you?

As a regular feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors answers readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Troy in Silver Spring, Maryland:

“I heard President Obama recently admit that he still smokes cigarettes occasionally. I know he is trying to quit but I’m curious what the health ramifications are for someone who just smokes once in a while?”


Great question, Troy. More than 46 million adults in America smoke cigarettes. But 70 percent say they would like to quit, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. There is no question that smoking is a hard habit to break. It's been suggested that nicotine could be as addictive as heroin. And like many Americans reading this right now, the president also struggles to break the habit. Obama admits that,  “as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it. …Have I fallen off the wagon? Yes."

However, it’s a myth to believe that if you smoke only two cigarettes a week for example, or just on the weekends, that it won't affect your health. Even a few cigarettes can increase your blood pressure,and  put you at a slightly increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Some studies show that young smokers who light up only occasionally have signs of artery disease. And though their risk of developing cancer is nowhere near that of a regular smoker, compared with a non-smoker, the risk is elevated.

One group the new anti-tobacco bill targets are so-called "social smokers.’" The concern is that social smoking can turn into a full-time habit very quickly. Big tobacco companies spend millions of dollars researching and marketing to this demographic.

What’s constitutes a social smoker? If you were to ask them, they’d tell you they don’t consider themselves smokers because they don’t do it every day. Studies show social smokers are younger, often  smoke only with friends at social functions and typically don’t typically purchase their own cigarettes in packs. Because of this, tobacco companies often market to social smokers in bars and clubs. The FDA will now regulate tobacco industry marketing in an effort to reduce social smoking in America.

Bottom line, Troy, is that no quantity of cigarettes is safe or healthy for our body. But for the millions of people struggling to quit right, don’t be discouraged if you slip up and smoke. Smoking one cigarette is much better than an entire pack. And by no means does it mean you’re a smoker again. Start fresh tomorrow. And check out www.smokefree.gov for great information on cessation and support programs.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.