Association of Long-term, Low-Intensity Smoking With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study

JAMA Intern Med. 2017 Jan 1;177(1):87-95. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.7511.


Importance: A growing proportion of US smokers now smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes per day (CPD), and that proportion will likely rise in the future. The health effects of smoking only a few CPD over one's lifetime are less understood than are the effects of heavier smoking, although many smokers believe that their level is modest.

Objective: To evaluate the associations of long-term smoking of fewer than 1 or 1 to 10 CPD (low intensity) with all-cause and cause-specific mortality compared with never smoking cigarettes.

Design, setting, and participants: Prospective cohort study of 290 215 adults in the National Institutes of Health-AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) Diet and Health Study who were aged 59 to 82 years in calendar years 2004-2005 (baseline). Data were gathered with a questionnaire assessing lifetime cigarette smoking history. Hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% CIs were determined for all-cause mortality and cause-specific mortality through the end of 2011. Hazard ratios and 95% CIs were estimated using Cox proportional hazards regression models using age as the underlying time metric and adjusted for sex, race/ethnicity, educational level, physical activity, and alcohol intake. Data analysis was conducted from December 15, 2015, to September 30, 2016.

Exposures: Current and historical smoking intensity during 9 previous age periods (from <15 years to ≥70 years) over the lifetime assessed on the 2004-2005 questionnaire.

Main outcomes and measures: All-cause and cause-specific mortality among current, former, and never smokers.

Results: Of the 290 215 cohort participants who completed the 2004-2005 questionnaire, 168 140 were men (57.9%); the mean (SD) age was 71 (5.3) years (range, 59-82 years). Most people who smoked fewer than 1 or 1 to 10 CPD at baseline reported smoking substantially higher numbers of CPD earlier in their lives. Nevertheless, 159 (9.1%) and 1493 (22.5%) of these individuals reported consistently smoking fewer than 1 or 1 to 10 CPD in each age period that they smoked, respectively. Relative to never smokers, consistent smokers of fewer than 1 CPD (HR, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.07-2.51) and 1 to 10 CPD (HR, 1.87; 95% CI, 1.64-2.13) had a higher all-cause mortality risk. Associations were similar in women and men for all-cause mortality and were observed across a range of smoking-related causes of death, with an especially strong association with lung cancer (HR, 9.12; 95% CI, 2.92-28.47, and HR, 11.61; 95% CI, 8.25-16.35 for <1 and 1-10 CPD, respectively). Former smokers who had consistently smoked fewer than 1 or 1 to 10 CPD had progressively lower risks with younger age at cessation. For example, the HRs for consistent smokers of fewer than 1 and 1 to 10 CPD who quit at 50 years or older were 1.44 (95% CI, 1.12-1.85) and 1.42 (95% CI, 1.27-1.59), respectively.

Conclusions and relevance: This study provides evidence that individuals who smoke fewer than 1 or 1 to 10 CPD over their lifetime have higher mortality risks than never smokers and would benefit from cessation. These results provide further evidence that there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cause of Death
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / mortality*
  • United States / epidemiology