Image:
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
The occasional cigarette at a party can be enough to trigger a heart attack in someone whose arteries are already clogged, says a new surgeon general report.
By
updated 12/9/2010 7:36:41 PM ET 2010-12-10T00:36:41

Think the occasional cigarette won't hurt? Even a bit of social smoking — or inhaling someone else's secondhand smoke — could be enough to block your arteries and trigger a heart attack, says the newest surgeon general's report on the killer the nation just can't kick.

Lung cancer is what people usually fear from smoking, and yes, that can take years to strike. But 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.

Or the one that triggers someone else's: "I advise people to try to avoid being around smoking any way that you can," she said.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

About 443,000 Americans die from tobacco-caused illnesses every year. While the smoking rate has dropped dramatically since 1964, when the first surgeon general's report declared tobacco deadly, progress has stalled in the past decade. About 46 million adults — one in five — still smoke, and tens of millions more are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. The government had hoped to drop the smoking rate to 12 percent by this year, a goal not only missed but that's now been put off to 2020.

Thursday's report is the 30th issued by the nation's surgeons general to warn the public about tobacco's risks.

"How many reports more does Congress need to have to say that cigarettes as a class of products ought to be banned?" asked well-known nicotine expert Dr. K. Michael Cummings of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, who helped to review the report. "One-third of the patients who are in our hospital are here today because of cigarettes."

Still, this newest report is unusual because it devotes more than 700 pages to detail the biology of how cigarette smoke accomplishes its dirty deeds — including the latest genetic findings to help explain why some people become more addicted than others, and why some smokers develop tobacco-caused disease faster than others.

There is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke, whether you deliberately inhale it or are a nonsmoker who breathes in other people's fumes, the report concludes. Nor is there evidence yet to tell if efforts to develop so-called safer cigarettes really will pan out.

But more recently it's become clear that some of the harms — especially those involving the heart — kick in right away, said Dr. Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means social smoking, the occasional cigarette at a party, can be enough to trigger a heart attack in someone whose arteries already are silently clogged, he said.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

"Too often people think the occasional social cigarette is not so dangerous, when in fact this report says yes, it is," he said.

So is breathing secondhand smoke. When Pueblo, Colo., banned smoking in all public places in 2003, the number of people hospitalized for heart disease plummeted 41 percent in just three years, the report found.

Why? Cigarette smoke immediately seeps into the bloodstream and changes its chemistry so that it becomes more sticky, allowing clots to form that can squeeze shut already narrowed arteries, the report explains. That's in addition to the more subtle long-term damage to blood vessels themselves, making them more narrow. And no one knows how little it takes to trigger that clotting.

Kicking the habit lets your body start healing, Benjamin stressed: "It's never too late to quit but the sooner you quit the better. Even if you're 70, 80 years old and you're a smoker, there's still benefit from quitting."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Surgeon General: No 'safe' amount of tobacco

  1. Transcript of: Surgeon General: No 'safe' amount of tobacco

    WILLIAMS: President Obama has made no secret of his struggle to quit smoking , as you know. And today at the White House his spokesman, when the attorney general's latest report on smoking was released, a reporter asked the press secretary at the White House if the president has, in fact, been able to fully quit.

    Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I've not seen or witnessed evidence of any smoking in probably nine months. This is not something that he's proud of. He knows that it's not good for him.

    WILLIAMS: He has not seen or witnessed any evidence of smoking for nine months. The job of a spokesman, we should point out, a crafty and creative answer about the smoking habits of his boss, the president.

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    WILLIAMS: Nancy , what else did we learn on this front today?

    SNYDERMAN: Well, the first report came out in '64, but today Dr. Regina Benjamin , our surgeon general, came out and said there is no such good -- no such thing as any exposure to cigarettes. In fact, just one puff can cause immediate damage to your body. This report focused on how smoking causes diseases. And one really important statistic, if everybody in this country stopped smoking right now, one out of three cancers would disappear. And, Brian , I think the number is even higher if you look at heart disease and stroke. There are 7,000 chemicals in one cigarette. At least 700 of them can cause cancer. So there is no safe limit whether you are the president or not.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments