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Cigarettes: Just Cutting Back Won't Cut It


WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Jan. 1, 2001 -- On this day each year, millions of Americans scribble "stop smoking" at the top of their list of resolutions. Many others vow to at least cut back somewhat on their cigarette use. If you're in the latter category, you might want to think again. New research shows that heavy smokers who cut back, rather than quit completely, see little if any health benefits.

The findings were published in the Dec. 15 issue of Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

"Clearly, the best way for smokers to reduce the harm is to stop smoking altogether," study co-author Richard Hurt, MD, tells WebMD. "That goes for lighter smokers or heavier smokers."

Hurt is director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He and fellow researchers studied 23 adults who were heavy smokers -- those who smoked at least 40 cigarettes a day. Over the course of nine weeks, the smokers tried to cut back to 10 cigarettes a day. Even with the help of counseling and nicotine inhalers, however, only two people were successful. A majority, though, was able to cut back to around 20 a day.

"This study mainly shows that it is very difficult for people to reduce their smoking if they are already heavy smokers," says John Slade, MD, a professor of public health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick, and director of that school's addiction program. "For people who are trying to reduce cigarette smoking, abstinence should be the aim, and cutting down should be done only with the clear goal of achieving abstinence."

After 12 weeks, researchers measured blood and urine levels to see if the smokers' health improved as they reduced the number of cigarettes smoked. They were surprised to find that not only did cutting cigarettes not provide health benefits, but also in some smokers, it was actually detrimental, causing increased levels of the poison cyanide.

While Hurt has no explanation for this, he says researchers do know that when smokers cut down or change to low-tar cigarettes, they often compensate by smoking more aggressively and extracting more bad things from the cigarettes.

So if you're thinking about cutting back on cigarettes, you might want to ask yourself this burning question: Can I just quit instead?

"For heavy smokers, stopping smoking altogether ... seems like a better option," Hurt says. "We encourage people to set a date to stop in the near future, contact a healthcare professional about medications that are available to help you, seek out counseling, and do your very best to stick with the date you've set. Many people will need more extensive treatment, and there are a growing number of specialists who can help."

Although the findings of this most recent study are unclear, Hurt says, the benefits of quitting are uncontestable. "Heavy smokers who use nicotine replacement therapy and receive counseling and support can stop smoking," he says. "And when smokers stop, there are measurable and almost immediate health benefits."

According to the World Health Organization, within just one year of quitting cigarettes, the risk of heart disease is reduced by 50%, and within 15 years, the risk of dying from heart disease for an ex-smoker is nearly equal to that of a longtime nonsmoker.

So this New Year's, why not try a little cold turkey with that glass of bubbly?

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