Asking For A Friend: Is smoking half a cigarette healthier than smoking whole one?

With more than 7,000 toxic chemicals like tar, benzene and acetone, it's better not to smoke at all.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read November 12, 2021
sketch of man smoking

Nothing good comes from smoking. GETTY

Dear Asking For A Friend,

I have been a long-time smoker, and I am not really interested in quitting, but I’m trying to cut back a bit. Is smoking half a cigarette better than a whole one?

Signed, Light Smoker


Dear Light Smoker,

What happens when you smoke is that every time you light up, you’re exposed to up to 12 milligrams of nicotine — a type of stimulant that when inhaled, travels from your lungs into your bloodstream and to your brain in a matter of seconds. Nicotine mimics dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, and the reason why it’s so addictive is that it messes with the chemical function in your brain. It’s not that you love smoking and don’t want to quit, it’s that over time, you lose control and nicotine starts calling the shots.

What makes nicotine so powerful is that it’s so similar in shape to acetylcholine receptors, which trigger increased brain activity and energy levels. Every time your body absorbs nicotine, your brain activity spikes, and over time, to help balance things out, your brain produces fewer acetylcholine receptors. It’s no wonder then that when you stop smoking, your body suddenly starts to crave nicotine and that spike in energy levels caused by cigarettes.

We can blame nicotine for its addictive properties, but it’s not the only culprit that’s responsible for poor health outcomes in some people. More than 7,000 chemicals are wrapped into an average cigarette, and roughly 70 of them may cause cancer. Tar, benzene, acetone, ammonia, and formaldehyde are just some of the substances that you’re exposed to every time you smoke. Tar is used to pave roads, benzene is found in car fuel and has been linked to cancer, acetone is commonly used in nail polish and ammonia in cleaning products. Formaldehyde is produced by tobacco smoke and it too has been linked to cancer.

It’s possible that people who have never smoked a day in their life can end up with lung cancer, but there is no denying that smoking increases the risk for the disease. In fact, according to Lung Cancer Canada, 85 per cent of all lung cancer cases can be attributed to cigarette smoking, and the risk of dying from the disease is up to 25 times greater for those who have smoked. And if you smoke around other people, you could be exposing them to second-hand smoke — their risk of lung cancer also increases, by up to 30 per cent.

In addition to increased lung cancer risk, smoking could also lead to premature aging and other conditions, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, both of which can cause breathing difficulties. Smoking may also cause bad breath, tooth decay and oral cancer, and increase the risk of tuberculosis and rheumatoid arthritis, especially in long-time smokers. If you’re into smoking half a cigarette, that may be better than smoking a full one, but it probably won’t do much in the way of dramatically cutting disease risk.

According to Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, “smoking less is better than smoking more.” He says that in smoking, there is a dose-response relationship, and the more you do it, the greater the risks, but “when you cut back, over time, it makes it easier for some people to quit smoking altogether.”

If you’re thinking of switching to light or flavoured cigarettes, don’t bother because science shows that these can be equally harmful to your health. Vaping may expose you to fewer harmful chemicals, but it’s equally addictive, and e-cigarettes may increase blood pressure and lead to a heart attack. To reduce health risks associated with smoking, kicking the habit is the way to go.

“A healthy cigarette is the one you don’t smoke,” says Cunningham.


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