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Threat of lung damage looms for both former smokers and light smokers

A study shows that the lungs can feel the effects of cigarettes years later

Photo (c) MeePoohyaphoto - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that those who have given up cigarettes, or those who have the occasional cigarette, may not be out of the woods when it comes to lung damage. 

The study revealed that compromised lung function can affect not only those who are avid smokers; those who quit the habit can experience damage to their lungs decades later. 

“Many people assume that smoking a few cigarettes a day isn’t so bad,” said researcher Dr. Elizabeth Oelsner. “But it turns out that the difference in loss of lung function between someone who smokes five cigarettes a day versus two packs a day is relatively small.”

Smoking takes a toll

The researchers divided over 25,000 participants into three groups to best understand the effect that smoking has on the lungs’ ability to breathe properly. The groups consisted of never-smokers, light smokers who smoked less than five cigarettes per day, and heavy smokers who smoked over 30 cigarettes per day. 

Over the course of the study, the participants’ lung function was regularly tested to account for outside factors such as age, which is known to reduce lung function regardless of smoking status. The researchers learned that both former smokers and light smokers experienced poorer lung function than those who had never touched a cigarette. 

Many consumers may be surprised to learn that quitting smoking wasn’t an immediate reversal of the stress they put on their lungs. The study revealed that while former smokers fare better than current smokers, it could take up to three decades to completely neutralize the effects of smoking. 

“That’s consistent with a lot of biological studies,” said Dr. Oelsner. “There are anatomic differences in the lung that persists for years after smokers quit and gene activity also remains unaltered.” 

Moreover, the researchers found that the difference in lung function between light smokers and heavy smokers was very minimal, emphasizing that even those who have a few cigarettes a day are affecting their long-term lung health. 

“Smoking a few cigarettes a day is much riskier than a lot of people think,” Dr. Oelsner said. “Everyone should be strongly encouraged to quit smoking, no matter how many cigarettes per day they are using.” 

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