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.

What is light smoking?

Light smoking is defined as smoking less than 5 cigarettes per day or smoking only on some days but not every day. Nondaily smoking is more common among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic individuals than non-Hispanic white individuals.

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 25% are non-daily/light smokers.

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

Research indicates light or non-daily smokers often believe there are fewer benefits to smoking cessation compared to daily smokers. The drive to smoke may be more tied to external stimuli (e.g., social cues) rather than the need to maintain steady nicotine levels to avoid withdrawal.

It is common for non-daily smokers to go without smoking cigarettes for weeks but then resume at a social event. The very fact that they don’t feel addicted works against them when they think about quitting smoking completely and can lower their motivation to do so.

What is considered a heavy smoker?

A heavy smoker is someone who smokes more than 20 cigarettes (about one pack) per day, and usually smokes every day. Heavy smokers are often very dependent on tobacco, which makes quitting more complex and challenging.

Is it better to be a light smoker?

While light smoking is less harmful than heavy smoking, it is important to note that there is no safe level of smoking.

Light smokers still face significant health risks, including heart disease and cancer, though these risks are generally lower than those faced by heavy smokers.

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

What’s the harm?

The non-addictive, casual nature of light cigarette 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 than people who didn’t smoke at all. This includes a higher risk for lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease.

Those researchers noted that it’s a common perception among smokers that nondaily smoking poses little or no health consequences. 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 light or some-day smokers quit smoking completely

“It’s only a few 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 smoking 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, certain subgroups of smokers may 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 to quitting smoking won’t work. A cessation 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’s tobacco cessation program can help you engage more of your population in quitting tobacco, please visit our EX Program page.

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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