Light Smoker vs. Heavy Smoker: Are Dangers the Same?

Light Smoker vs. Heavy Smoker: Are Dangers the Same?

We’ve likely all heard about the health risks associated with being a heavy smoker. But is there any danger with being a light smoker? Unfortunately, yes.

Fewer cigarettes per day or per month doesn’t mean they’re safe.

While daily tobacco consumption in the U.S. is declining, light smoking has been on an opposite trajectory, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This type of consumption is also called social, low-volume, or intermittent smoking.

Graph showing the percentage of adults more than or equal to 18 years who reported smoking cigarettes every day, by average number of cigarettes smoked per day in the U.S.

For example, someone might smoke on the weekends when they go out, or they smoke every few days to relieve stress. You might know someone who smokes “just one” cigarette every evening instead of, or along with, a nightcap. Among those who smoke, it’s estimated that about a quarter are non-daily/light smokers.

Someone may be a light smoker for many years, and although some people may convert to daily smokers, that’s not always the case.

What is light smoking?

Those who are nondaily or light smokers don’t have the physiological addiction that daily smokers experience. Here are some stats to consider about those who smoke lightly:

  • They tend to be male, more educated, and are more likely to be Black or Latino
  • They smoke on average 11.7 days per month
  • They average 3.7 cigarettes on days they smoke

Most notably, people who don’t smoke every day may have a harder time quitting, but for very different reasons than heavy smokers.

Research indicates light or non-daily smokers often believe there are fewer benefits to cessation compared to daily smokers. They don’t have withdrawal symptoms, because they don’t experience nicotine dependency. For some, they may go without smoking for weeks and then resume at a social event. The very fact that they don’t feel addicted works against them when they think about quitting and can lower their motivation to do so.

What’s the harm?

The non-addictive, casual nature of light smoking can make it more challenging to help those smokers navigate toward quitting, but the effort is important. That’s because research shows a 72% higher mortality for nondaily smokers compared to those who’ve never smoked.

A study that looked at over 500,000 U.S. adults found that people smoking just 6-10 cigarettes per month had much higher risks for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease than people who didn’t smoke at all.

Those researchers noted that it’s a common perception among smokers that nondaily smoking poses little or no harm. However, studies indicate that these smokers not only have higher risks for disease and health conditions compared to non-smokers, they also die on average 5 years sooner compared to nonsmokers.

The bottom line is clear: no safe level of tobacco consumption exists.

How to help nondaily smokers quit

It’s only a couple cigarettes a month. I only smoke when I drink. I’m not addicted, so I don’t need addiction counseling or a cessation program. Perspectives like these mean that helping nondaily smokers quit involves a different approach than your organization would use for daily smokers who have physiological and psychological addiction. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Cover any tobacco use in incentives or a tobacco use surcharge. Nondaily smokers might think these incentives or surcharges don’t apply to them, but these can be effective nudges toward behavior change. Evidence indicates that quit-smoking incentives can improve cessation rates and quitting outcomes.
  • Ask your quit-tobacco program provider about nondaily smokers. Ask your program provider how they connect with vulnerable subpopulations where nondaily smoking is prevalent. Is the imagery they use inclusive of diverse populations? Is there social support for these subpopulations? Are coaches trained to support individuals with diverse lived experiences?
  • Make sure the program is available through more than an app. To maximize reach among different populations, it helps if the quit-tobacco program is available through the web (not just an app) and offers interactive support through text messages and other formats. For example, Latinos may tend to prefer using text message interventions. Can your current quit-tobacco program accommodate this?

Offering effective resources means meeting nondaily smokers where they are. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. A program that understands the needs of nondaily or light smokers can go a long way toward making them into EX-tobacco users.

To learn more about how the EX Program can help you engage more of your population in quitting tobacco, please visit our EX Program page.

Jessie Saul, Ph.D.
Jessie Saul, Ph.D.

Director, Strategic Insights

Dr. Jessie Saul brings 19 years of experience in research, program evaluation, and strategic implementation around tobacco cessation. She applies this deep understanding to improve EX Program performance and reduce tobacco use among populations. She earned her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University.

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