Young women more likely to be 'very light' smokers, say researchers

Smoking five or fewer cigarettes a day is fairly common among women aged 18-20, a study reports, but the risks of infrequent smoking are still substantial.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
In this Oct. 15, 2010 file photo, Marlboro cigarettes are displayed at a liquor store in Palo Alto, Calif. A recent study reported that women aged 18 to 20 are more likely to smoke five or fewer cigarettes a day.

While overall smoking levels in the United States are down, “very light” smoking has increased, especially among young women, a new study found.

Very light smokers – those who report smoking five or fewer cigarettes a day – made up about a fifth of the study’s sample of more than 9,700 women aged 18 to 25 and were most likely to be between the ages of 18 and 20, to have some college education, and to be from a minority group. The study reported that very light smokers were more aware of the risks of nicotine and less likely to report dependence than heavy smokers, and recommended the group as a target for prevention efforts.

The study, conducted at the University of Texas at Austin and published in Preventing Chronic Disease, focused on women because of the effects of smoking on reproductive health, as well as the “attractive” way advertisers portray smoking in women.  “Advertising aimed at women attempts to associate smoking with independence, attractiveness, and sophistication, traits that are especially likely to appeal to young women,” the study said.

Since many of the very light smokers were college-aged and had some college education, the study suggested young women may see smoking as part of the college party scene. “Social features of college life, including weekend partying, may promote smoking at a very light level among college women,” the study said.

Very light smokers seemed to be more aware than other smokers of the risks of smoking, the study found, but just as likely as light or heavy smokers to show symptoms of depression, recent psychological distress, and recent substance abuse.

But though they see smoking as a more high-risk behavior, very light smokers may think that by smoking less, they avoid the danger, say experts.

Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control, told CBS News very light smokers may not consider themselves smokers.

"For this reason, practitioners need to be sure to ask their patients, particularly young women, 'When was the last time you used tobacco.' If patients are asked if they smoke, the very light and/or nondaily smokers may say no," Dr. Folan said

Folan also added that infrequent smokers are likely to become more regular smokers over time.

"Light and nondaily smokers often increase their smoking over time and become daily, heavier smokers," she said.

Even for those who remain very light smokers, pulmonary specialist Dr. Len Horovitz told CBS News, the risks are still significant.

"Even light smoking can triple the lifetime risk of heart disease," Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist, told CBS News. "More efforts need to be directed at this cohort of emerging young women who smoke lightly," he added.

Overall, Center of Disease Control and Prevention data says nearly 18 out of every 100 Americans aged 18 or older reported being a current smoker in 2013 – down from 21 percent in 2005.

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