And why e-cigs aren't much better.
Paula Lyne on why it’s time to cop on, and nip those social cigarettes in the bud pronto…
“Are you a smoker?” The gynaecologist looked at me expectantly. I’d just come in for a secondary exam and a biospy after three smear tests in two years showed that I had “possibly irregular changes” in my cervical cells. As always, I answered “no,” breezing over the question. I wasn’t a smoker, after all.
It was only when the nurse asked me the same question ten minutes later, using a tone of voice that implied she meant “you are a smoker though, right?” that I realised something was up. As someone who only ever lit up on a night out, and never in the sober light of day, I’d always answered the smoking question with a negative. But here were both a doctor and a nurse, looking at my cervical cells magnified times fifty on a TV-sized screen, and seeing something I wasn’t. They were onto me.
Some frantic Googling of the words “smoking risk cervical cancer” after I left the clinic a few minutes later revealed that smokers – even those who call themselves social smokers – are at a higher risk of HPV (human papilloma virus) infection.
Most sexually active women contract HPV in their lifetime, and while it’s potentially an alarm bell for cervical cancer, in most cases it goes away by itself. Smokers, however, tend to hold onto HPV for longer, putting them at even greater risk of cervical cancer. After two years, my HPV was still knocking around, leading to that oh-so-pointed “are you a smoker?” question.
Let me be clear on this. Despite going from one much-savoured cigarette on a night out back in college to buying a pack of twenty a couple of times a month, I’d never considered myself a smoker. Ever.
Sure, I’d wake up some Sundays smelling of smoke with a bone-dry mouth and a croaky throat, but it was only every once in a while, and always combined with a hangover. Yes, I was buying my own, but I was sharing them out with anyone who asked, and it could take me weeks to get through a whole pack.
Three months on from my clinic visit, I’ve been too scared to go near a cigarette, but I have been doing my research. Turns out the line between “social smoking” and “smoking” is a thin one. So thin, in fact, that it barely exists at all.
“There is no safe level of smoking,” explains Rachel Burke, Community Cancer Prevention Officer with the Irish Cancer Society. “Even if you just smoke at weekends or occasionally, you are still a smoker. The health dangers of low level smoking are quite significant. There are 7,000 chemicals in one cigarette.”
Unlike with alcohol, science doesn’t distinguish between a safe and unsafe level of smoking. There’s no “one glass of red wine a week” type of rule when it comes to lighting up. The HSE classes a “light smoker” as someone who smokes anything up to ten cigarettes a day, and that category extends all the way down to those who smoke only once a week. In the eyes of our medical system, if you light up at all, you’re a smoker.
It might seem like a whitewashed view, but it’s a logical one. “Smoking at any time puts your health at risk,” says Rachel. “Social smokers are exposed to the same harmful chemicals and vulnerable to the same health effects as regular smokers.”
In terms of those health effects, it’s a medical pick ‘n’ mix. Yes, there’s cancer, at least 13 kinds: cervical, breast, lung, oral, stomach, liver, kidney, and more. Then there’s cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, infertility, and respiratory tract infections. The list is long and nightmarish.
To put a number on it, smoking is directly related to 5,600 deaths in Ireland every year, according to the March 2017 Tobacco Free Ireland Annual Report, but that hasn’t stopped people sparking up. In fact, 23% of the Irish population are current smokers, with 4% saying they smoke occasionally and 19% smoking regularly.
“I’ve been smoking on-and-off since I was 17,” says Maeve, 29, an executive PA working in Dublin. “At the moment I only do it on nights out, as it’s very much tied into the social thing for me.” Maeve knows of the risks, but still struggles to kick her habit. “I’ve seen those images of tarred-up lungs on the box, but I barely even notice them. Last year I did try vaping, and it helped me scale back my smoking habit, but I know it’s just another crutch. I don’t really see it as a long-term solution.”
When e-cigarettes first started popping up in the hands of Irish smokers, they were met with some kickback from healthcare professionals, who cited the worrying lack of long-term research about the potential health risks of puffing on vapourised nicotine. However, six years on, a new Cancer Research UK report suggests that as a long-term replacement for real smoking, vaping and e-cigarettes could indeed be a good option. According to the report, participants who switched over to e-cigarettes presented with far lower levels of toxins and carcinogens in their bodies than continual smokers after just six months.
Of course, even a “far lower” level of toxins still poses a significant health danger, as Dr Patrick Doorley of ASH Ireland points out. “We must not lose sight of the fact that e-cigarette users are still digesting a certain, if reduced, level of toxic chemicals and we need longer term research to realise the full implications of this fact,” he said of the report’s findings.
Vaping and “occasional smoking” might seem like safe enough ideas at first glance, but as with most vices out there, the only way to completely avoid the negative effects of cigarette smoking is to cut it out completely. That’s easier said than done, of course, but if you’re struggling to justify giving up those cheeky few night-out cigarettes, I know a doctor and nurse in Dublin 2 who can probably put the frighteners on you…
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