Can a single cigarette kill you?

The surgeon general says that a simple drag on a cigarette can be deadly. Why is even limited exposure so dangerous?

Inhaling cigarette smoke causes more than 7,000 chemicals to spread through the body.
(Image credit: Corbis)

The surgeon general's office has been releasing reports on the perils of smoking since 1964, but the latest update, released last week, contained a bombshell. The report included a detailed analysis of the biology behind cigarettes' deadly effects, and warned that a single drag from a single cigarette can lead to health problems down the road. "That one puff on that cigarette could be the one that causes your heart attack," said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. How bad can one puff of smoke really be? (Watch the Surgeon General discuss the finding)

Why is one cigarette so dangerous?

When a smoker takes a puff, more than 7,000 chemicals rapidly spread through the body and cause cellular damage in nearly every organ. The smoke does immediate harm by inflaming the lining of the lungs, potentially leading to serious diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. "Inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer," says Benjamin. It can also damage blood vessels and make it more difficult for blood to clot, increasing the risk for heart attacks, strokes, and aneurysms.

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What role do tobacco companies play?

The report "points the finger at tobacco companies," says Discover, "for making their product more addictive." According to Benjamin's report, cigarette makers have tried to "hook first-time users and keep older smokers coming back" by adding ammonia, which transports nicotine to the brain faster; using "moisture enhancers" to lessen smoking's burning sensation; and adding filter holes that "allow people to inhale smoke more deeply into the lungs."

How many people smoke in America?

The rate has dropped precipitously since 1964, when the surgeon general's office began its high-profile campaign against tobacco. But "progress has stalled in the past decade." Despite all the warnings, 46 million people, or 20 percent of the population, still smoke in the United States.

How many people die from smoking?

Smoking remains the country's "biggest source of preventable death," accounting for 443,000 fatalities a year. The government hoped to cut the smoking rate to 12 percent of the population by this year, a goal now pushed back to 2020. Officials hope that adding graphic warning images to cigarette packs will get many more users to quit.

Sources: The Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Associated Press, Discover, USA Today

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