As of 2015, around 19% of the adult population in the UK were regular smokers, and 1.1 million people labelled themselves as social smokers. Assuming that these are two separate groups of people, that means that 13497621.79 people in the UK smoke. Now, it’s pretty common knowledge that smoking is bad, but what does that actually mean? How ‘bad’ is bad, and how quickly do the negatives take effect?
One of the most well-known effects of long term smoking is, of course, cancer. More specifically, lung cancer (although other areas such as the bladder, kidneys and liver can also be affected). The cancers are caused by structural damage in the DNA of cells. This structural damage then triggers mutations, which can be malignant. This damage and the resultant mutations has been linked to tiny chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by researchers at the University of Minnesota. When they enter the body, they are able to form metabolites that then attack cells and cause irreparable structural damage. Studies have shown that the concentration of these metabolites in the body peaks between 15 and 30 minutes after the first inhale, meaning that the damage begins to occur almost immediately.
Recent research conducted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has managed to quantify just how fast these harmful mutations occur. According to their data, every 50 cigarettes carries with it the potential for one serious (i.e. cancerous) mutation. On average, a heavy smoker would consume approximately 20 cigarettes a day. If this is multiplied out, that’s 140 a week. If this is extrapolated again, it can be assumed that they would smoke, on average, 7280 cigarettes in a year. This means that each smoker will experience roughly 145.6 serious mutations per year, and whether or not they are cancerous is completely up to chance. Think Russian Roulette, but with lung cancer.
Scarily, once these changes to the DNA have been made, they cannot be reversed. No amount of avocado and kale smoothies can erase the permanent cellular damage. However, all is not lost. A 50-year-long study of smokers and their habits has recently been concluded by researchers at the University of Oxford, and their findings are fairly positive. Despite smoking knocking approximately 10 years off a person’s average lifespan, if smokers quit before the age of 30 then the risk of dying prematurely is ‘virtually eliminated’.
So, in conclusion, quit while you’re ahead.