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Even light smokers court early death

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Risk of premature death from smoking is higher than previously thought, with smokers who limit themselves to just a few cigarettes a day no better off than the morbidly obese when it comes to the risk of death.

In a finding that underlines the damage even a few cigarettes a day can cause, a large long-term Australian study has found that the risk of death among those who smoke up to an average of 10 cigarettes per day is more than double that faced by non-smokers.

The research, part of the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up study, draws on the health records of more than 200,000 patients tracked over a period of four years, and found that smoking is even more toxic than previously thought.

It found that two-thirds of smoker deaths could be directly attributed to tobacco use, much higher than international estimates that smoking directly contributes to half of all smoker deaths.

Lead researcher Professor Emily Banks from the Australian National University said that although it was well established that smoking was bad for health, the research demonstrated just how bad it was.

 “The risks associated with smoking 10 cigarettes a day are similar to the risks of death associated with being morbidly obese, so with having a body mass index of 35 or more,” Professor Banks said.

“Most light smokers wouldn’t think of themselves as having a risk that is similar to someone who is morbidly obese.

“People don’t realise how damaging even light smoking is for your health – for cancer, heart disease, lung disease and a range of other conditions.”

Researchers also found that current smokers were three times more likely to die than people who had never smoked, and the risk of dying increased with the number of cigarettes.

Within the four-year period covered by the study, the life expectancy of smokers was 10 years less than that of non-smokers.

“What we see is a continuum of increasing risk against increasing numbers of cigarettes being smoked. There’s no threshold, there’s no point where you can say that’s a safe number of cigarettes,” the study said.

Tobacco smoking is estimated to be responsible for 9.7 per cent of the total disease burden in Australia.

Kirsty Waterford

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