Surgeon General Report Focuses on the Risks of Just One Cigarette

By Andrew Moseman | December 10, 2010 3:54 pm

cigarette butteSmoke is in the air again. Well, smoking, rather. The newest report by the Surgeon General (yes, they’re still doing those) came out this week, and the 30th installment of this institutional dispatch ratcheted up the message. It’s not just a lot of smoking that will kill you; the Surgeon General’s office is now pushing the idea that even one cigarette is one too many—serious damage can start immediately, says the report.

Thursday’s report says there’s no doubt that tobacco smoke begins poisoning immediately — as more than 7,000 chemicals in each puff rapidly spread through the body to cause cellular damage in nearly every organ. “That one puff on that cigarette could be the one that causes your heart attack,” said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. [AP]

It’s not exactly a revelation that smoking is risky and get riskier the more you do it. However, this is the first in the long line of these reports to really press the points that have turned up in recent research, like epigenetic changes or immediate risk to the cardiovascular system.

The root of the problem is that even small amounts of the chemicals in cigarette smoke cause rapid inflammation in the endothelium, or lining, of blood vessels and in the lungs. Inflammation is increasingly blamed by researchers as a key promoter of blood vessel plaques and clots and in obstructive lung diseases like emphysema. “The evidence on the mechanisms by which smoking causes disease indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke,” the report concludes. [WebMD Health News]

Benjamin’s 700-page report also points the finger at tobacco companies for making their product more addictive.

Recent changes in the design and ingredients in cigarettes have made them more likely to hook first-time users and keep older smokers coming back, Benjamin says. Changes include ammonia added to tobacco, which converts nicotine into a form that gets to the brain faster; filter holes that allow people to inhale smoke more deeply into the lungs; sugar and “moisture enhancers” to reduce the burning sensation of smoking, making it more pleasant, especially for new cigarette users. [USA Today]

The new report from the country’s head doc should be another kick in the pants to the nation’s struggling smoker-in-chief, President Obama. Press secretary Robert Gibbs, when asked this week, said he hadn’t noticed the President smoking in nine months or so, and said that Obama is resisting the urge to light up despite the stress of the presidency. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner reportedly struggles with the cancer sticks, too.

But neither the Democrat nor the Republican can hold a cigarette to the Rolling Stone. Keith Richards, The Guardian reports, visited the New York Public Library a couple months ago and left dead flowers and disappointed librarians in his smoke trail.

The guitarist had been given a tour of the premises, finishing with an invitation to sit “backstage”, in the office of Marie d’Origny, deputy director of the library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. When D’Origny returned a little while later, Richards was smoking a cigarette, the office window open, and according to the library’s blog, “between the cold and the smoke, the little orchid never stood a chance”. [The Guardian]

Being a true gentleman, though, Keith signed the flower’s pot (which he’d been using as an ashtray) before departing.

Related Content:
80beats: Study: “Third-Hand Smoke” Sticks Around & Produces New Carcinogens
80beats: Study: CT Scans Could Catch Smokers’ Lung Cancer Early
80beats: Electronic Cigarettes Not a Safe Alternative to Conventional Cigs
80beats: Even Discreet, Conscientious Smokers Leave a Trail of “Third-Hand Smoke”

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • nick

    1.) Keith Richards is effing awesome.

    2.) Point out one instance of someone who keeled over from a heart attack on their first cigarette.

    While I have no doubt that smoking is bad, overly-alarmist reports like this just get mocked by the crowd most susceptible to starting to smoke, namely the teenage crowd. No one is going to believe that the first cigarette could kill you, because there are millions and millions of indicators to the contrary, namely all those people who smoke without dying immediately.

    Need to focus more on the “it’ll eventually give you cancer or emphysema.” And record some videos of people dying from those diseases, which in my experience can be a very gross and traumatic experience for those just watching. Or, heck, just some 30 second recordings of lifelong pack-a-day smokers coughing up the morning goo when they’re at age 45. The bathroom was right next to my bedroom when this happened with my mother’s late boyfriend. The noises were horrendous (he could have taught the foley artists for Jurassic Park a thing or two) and I’m guessing whatever ended up in the sink would probably be gag-worthy at the very least. Not something you want to hear every morning at 6am.

  • Iain

    Show me one asbestos breather that died that day. Nick DUH!

  • Jan

    Yes. I had a freind who woke up like that several years ago. Said it was post nasel drip. I was supposed to believe that. Talk about denial!


    I can’t believe the stupidity of the scientific/ medical community spending even one $ on this irrelevant tripe. The country if falling apart financially, Iran is on the verge of have nuclear weapons, etc. and this idiot is spending money on this. No wonder the public is becoming more and more skeptical of the (political) scientists of today.

  • natural cynic

    How irrelevant is all the $$$$$ that the gov’t is spending on health care for smokers? People are stupid about smoking and have to be hit over the head by something new every once in a while/

  • ChH

    This is absurd. And as others have said, a collossal waste of resources.
    I’m probably one of the few people in the world who have smoked exactly one cigarette – about 20 years ago on a lark (I was trying to talk one of my college smoker friends into shaving his head).
    And they’re telling me that one cig is going to shorten my life? Give me a freaking break. I’m sure all the pounds of bacon I’ve consumed since then will make the cig’s affect on my longevity negligable.
    nick – you are correct – KR is awesome. I’m sure it was the cold that did the orchid in, not his second-hand smoke.

  • Erik L.

    I believe the info got lost in traslation: The issue here is not the amount of cigarettes you smoke, but wether you smoke or do not smoke, i e, a 0/1-situation, digital you know.

  • Jockaira

    This reminds me of a report by the California State Department of Health about 15 years ago that said non-smoking bar employees were absorbing the equivalent (tars, nicotine, etc.) of a whole pack of cigarettes during an 8-hour shift. Knowing how addictive nicotine is, I asked myself what these employees were doing on their days off. If they were smoking then they couldn’t be classified as non-smokers. If they weren’t smoking, then how does one account for their lack of addictive urges etc., and the claimed fact that they were still non-smokers?

    If, for some reason, these non-smoking employees with these high exposure rates remained non-smoking, then the reasonable thing for the Department of Health to do is to find out how. I’m sure the answer to that would be many times more important than the Department’s “Sky Is Falling” announcements.

    In a similar controversy, the question has been posed “How much risk of undesirable social behaviour is there for the average person in reading a single verse from the Bible?”

    I have not mentioned the latter to derail the topic, but to demonstrate the almost religious fervor of some anti-smoking advocates.

    If the Surgeon General believes that his statements will deter smoking in even one person, then I suggest that we need a new Surgeon General. His work is sub-standard, a waste of taxpayers’ money, and bringing the office into disrepute.

  • Tammy: age 16

    I really don’t see the point of smoking. Its pointless and stupid. I think people who smoke are just purposely doing harm to their body. I mean if one cigarette can do that much harm to your body then obviously a pack of them can just make you more vulnerable to death. I think smoking is a slow process of committing suicide.

  • RJ

    Warning – opinion ahead…Yeah, we get it, smoking is bad. Every smoker I ever met knows that it is bad, they just don’t care. When they start to care (not just fool themselves) they quit. I just think this hurts the movement more than it helps. Now that we’ve gone to the trouble to measure the toxicity of a single smoke can we get a similar study of toasting a single marshmallow over a camp fire. How about burning scented candles or little pans of scented oils to “freshen” the air in your house, or inhaling exhaust fumes the first time you mow your lawn. etc. etc.

  • http://none David Nesbitt

    I am a smoker. I am 47 years old, and have been smoking since I was 12, not counting the 3 years I quit. I readily admit that smoking has no positive health benefits. It is an addiction to the drug nicotine. Scientific studies suggest that nicotine addiction may be more powerful than heroine addiction. I am on the verge of quitting again…and possibly forever, because I am tired of the cough that results from my pack a day addiction. However, I know many people who smoke 2+ packs a day and have no cough. We are all individually different, and smoking affects each of us differently. Comparisons of smokers vs. non-smokers show little difference in rates of lung cancer, or throat cancer. Why do many non-smokers develop lung cancer, and many smokers NOT develop lung cancer? That question remains unanswered. But I digress…my initial response concerned the statement….there are more than 7,000 chemicals in one puff of cigarette smoke! How did there get to be so many, and can anybody provide me with a list of that many chemicals? I can’t fathom that many different chemicals in any one thing…I have only 2 semesters of chemistry in my college background, so perhaps I am naive. How do you put 7,000 chemicals into a single puff? I know the tobacco industry adds chemicals to make smoking more ‘palatable’…but 7,000? And if this is THAT dangerous, why isn’t the FDA working on prohibiting it’s use? They have no problem classifying the chemicals in other ‘recreational drugs’ as being so detrimental to our health as to make them illegal, yet cigarettes remain legal. I realize ‘prohibition’ of tobacco products would be no more effective than prohibition of alcohol proved to be…but why don’t they strictly regulate the chemical additives tobacco companies add to make smoking more pleasurable…Is the FDA looking after our health, or the benefits of major business profits involved? It appears that it is not about our health…this is about money…and who profits! If it’s that terrible for our health, where is the ‘clamp-down’ we might expect from an organization responsible for deciding what is healthy or not? Both alcohol and tobacco are considered safe enough drugs that they are legal…because they make billions of dollars a year in revenue…if you legalized crack or heroine, the same could happen, with the same detrimental effects to our health. I suspect money rules the world of tobacco sales, and those in a position to change things may have their pockets lined with ‘campaign contributions’…often referred to as ‘lobbying’…but this is just my opinion.

  • Christian


    “Comparisons of smokers vs. non-smokers show little difference in rates of lung cancer, or throat cancer. ”

    The study at the URL below contradicts you.

    It suggests that 17% of male smokers will get lung cancer, compared with just 1% of male non-smokers.

  • Illusions


    They are likely trying to get people focused on the possibility of immediate death from cigarettes, no matter how unlikely that is, because human beings (particularly adolescents) have enormous difficulty making good long term choices.

    So anti-smoking campaigns DO need to focus on the immediate consequences, rather than long term ones, but they do need to focus on the most LIKELY immediate consequences. And consequences their target audience might actually believe could happen to them. Like……. “it makes you stink, it gives you bad breath, it costs money and isolates you from other people because you are outside smoking while everyone else is inside having fun.”

    Most of those things advertisers have spent billions of dollars to make you paranoid about already, for their own sake, why not hijack that meme and make it work for anti-smoking messages?

  • Cathy

    I actually had an immediate, acute reaction to just one cigarette. It was overwhelming nausea, a choking feeling, and a horrible burning in my entire respitory track. So I believe the study. I learned from that one cigarette that I’ve got an allergy to the chemical additives, not the tobacco itself, as second-hand cigarette smoke causes the same reaction (but not pure tobacco pipe smoke.) I’ve learned to just avoid places where smokers congregate.


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