Light smoking as risky as a pack a day?

By J. Lee Westmaas, PhD

Do you occasionally have a cigarette, maybe not even every day? Although people resolve to quit smoking in the new year, you might think only heavy smokers need to quit. But that isn’t the case.

Light or intermittent smoking has become a very common pattern for people of any age.  Many of these people do not feel addicted to tobacco and do not even call themselves “smokers.” There are, however, some real risks associated with any level of smoking. Non-daily smoking, or smoking 1-5 cigarettes a day, was first noticed as far back as 1989 because it was a stark contrast to the more common pattern at that time — 20 to 30 cigarettes a day. At that time, very light smokers were labeled “chippers” (a term that also referred to occasional users of opiates who appeared to not be addicted). Chippers didn’t appear to smoke to relieve withdrawal, and sometimes didn’t smoke for a day or more. [more]

Number of ‘chippers’ growing

Since that time, occasional smoking has become a lot more common. The number of U.S. smokers who claim to not smoke every day increased 40% between 1996 and 2001. In fact, half of U.S. smokers claim to be light or intermittent smokers. Some of this is likely due to the increasing restrictions on smoking in public places and workplaces, and the stigma of being thought of as a smoker. Having less disposable income might also be a factor that accounts for lighter smoking in some racial/ethnic groups, (and why this pattern of smoking is very common in developing countries).

Young adults and college students in particular engage in light or intermittent smoking. Many of them reject the idea that they could be called a “smoker” because they report smoking only in social settings such as at parties, or only when then experience stressful events or are angry. Some of these smokers may feel a need to smoke when drinking alcohol.

Some light or intermittent smokers, particularly young adults, believe that their lighter smoking does not present health risks. And because they don’t see themselves as smokers, they don’t intend to “quit.”

Even light smoking poses risks

No cigarette is without risk, however. Smoking even as little as 5 days out of the month can lead to more shortness of breath and coughing. What’s more, smoking just 1 to 4 cigarettes a day can increase the risk of dying from heart disease and all causes, like cancer. For women, the news is even worse:  women’s risk of lung cancer from light smoking is greater than men’s when compared to never- smokers of both genders.

Other light or intermittent smokers were once heavier daily smokers who have begun to cut down on their smoking on their way to quitting. Cutting down on smoking may make it easier for some smokers to finally kick the habit, and this is probably a worthwhile strategy as long as the smoker can keep the end goal in mind, which is not using tobacco products at all. But smoking 4-5 cigarettes daily can also lead to withdrawal symptoms after 24 hours of abstinence, so some light smokers probably are addicted.

Although we need more research to understand the causes and consequences of light and intermittent smoking, one danger is that this pattern may lead to people gradually smoking more and more,  which increases the difficulty of quitting.  Given the dangers of any level of smoking, research is also needed to help us understand how best to persuade chippers about the risks of light and intermittent smoking.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help smokers quit that are based on scientific evidence, whatever the level of smoking. These include calling a telephone quitline for support, medications such as Chantix or Zyban, and even online chats and text messages that can give advice and support to smokers when they experience cravings during a quit attempt.

If you smoke – even if it’s only a few cigarettes a week – take advantage of these resources and get the help you need to quit.


Dr. Westmaas is director of tobacco research in the Behavioral Research Center of the American Cancer Society.

10 thoughts on “Light smoking as risky as a pack a day?

  1. So I find this topic very interesting. I myself am the kind of person who tends to smoke when I drink. However I don't drink often enough to even smoke once a month. So I have to wonder what kind of side effects that would have on me. The article talks about people who smoke lightly and college students that are social smokers. I have to wonder what kind of effects it has on people like me who only smoke 2 or 3 cigarettes every 3 or 4 months.

  2. 1. Need the actual metadata.
    2. Let the Chippers do the statistics.
    3. If smoking a pack of cigs per month-only half way through is bad–I'll stop.
    4. Truthful studies change behaviors. Scare tactics are for weak minded conformists.

  3. I never really got into smoking. I'm glad I didn't either. I still have a lot of friends right now that don't consider themselves smokers, yet they do every time they drink.

  4. Thought I'd contribute as an ex-"chipper":

    Smoked 5 a day or less for 7 years. Let's say 4 on average. Never went over.

    To quit, I had to concentrate hard to beat cravings and withdrawal.

    The whole concept of chipping is kept alive by the smoker's addictive self attempting to rationalise why it's ok to keep smoking. The addicted self grabs at ANYTHING and tries to use it to get its way.

    "It's cool, I'm just a light smoker, so I'll light up. Again."

    You happen to smoke <5 a day as opposed to 20. But you're still a nicotine addict.

    BTW, I choose not to smoke now for my own reasons.
    I think it's a life choice, and I don't see anything bad in the people who do it 🙂

  5. A friend of mine smokes one bowl of pipe tobacco daily and has done for over 50 years, no inhaling and is in top health. I think the key to smoking is to avoid cigarettes (too many chemicals and extra nicotine) and buy pure tobacco and indulge occasionally without inhaling.

  6. I find when I stop "chipping" I end up (sorry but true) unconsciously sucking my thumb! Given my age (adult) I think that, incredibly, smoking is far more socially acceptable. Ironic, and sad.

  7. I began smoking at the age of 13, how stupid was I? I started doing it socially around friends when they managed to get some, but then one day I saw a pack of cigarettes in an old drawer and I thought I'd take take them, smoked them all in one day, and something clicked inside my mind, I'd end up waiting outside shops before school just to ask someone to go and buy me cigarettes, and the most I smoked was 7 a day (approx) I'd plan my life around cigarettes, even though I'd usually only smoke 4 a day, 2 in the morning and two afterschool, but in school I'd be constantly yearning to have another nicotine hit, your life ends up revolving around a shredded plant rolled in paper, pathetic really… Because even if you're having a low dose of nicotine it's still a habit, and no one gives you an in depth reason as to why you shouldn't smoke, they don't tell you you'll get horrible coughs and you'll constantly reek even if you're not smoking, or the horrid withdrawals.. I went for four months without nicotine (went cold turkey – the first week I literally wanted to murder someone) but one day, I was with a friend and I thought 'just one' and despite what alot of people say I did have 'just the one' without any cravings at all after, I think it's psychological mainly and you don't think you're a drug addiction because the drug isn't illicit, but it still can take over your life if you let it, the best advice, don't even bother smoking… Cos I'm not going to put a cancer stick in my mouth anymore!

  8. [quote]So I find this topic very interesting. I myself am the kind of person who tends to smoke when I drink. However I don't drink often enough to even smoke once a month. So I have to wonder what kind of side effects that would have on me. The article talks about people who smoke lightly and college students that are social smokers.[b] I have to wonder what kind of effects it has on people like me who only smoke 2 or 3 cigarettes every 3 or 4 months[/b].

    That's 8 to 12 cigarettes a year for God's sake…

  9. I'm so glad that I quit smoking shortly after college. To be honest, I only really started in high school to look "cool". Legislation seems to be really cutting against tobacco products. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before tobacco products are banned completely due to extremely adverse health effects and the burden on our health system. I think this would be good to protect those who appear incapable of protecting themselves.

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