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Reducing the risk

Low-tar cigarettes are no better for you than normal brands. The best way for smokers to reduce their risk of cancer is to give up smoking completely.

Quitting greatly reduces the risk of smoking-related cancers, as well as other diseases such as heart and lung disease, compared to continuing to smoke. The earlier you do it, the better. But equally it is never too late to gain valuable years of life by giving up smoking.

Most smokers say that they would like to give up if they could. But stopping isn't always simple. Emilie and Mark have both successfully given up after being smokers for years. They shared their stories with us, telling us how they did it, and how they feel now.

You can also read about proven ways to boost your chances of quitting on our blog.

What influences your risk?

The more cigarettes you smoke a day, the higher your risk of cancer. If you aren’t able to quit completely, cutting down the number of cigarettes you smoke a day can be a good first step.

Scientists have found that the number of years you spend smoking affects your cancer risk even more strongly than the number of cigarettes you smoke a day. For example, smoking one pack a day for 40 years is more dangerous than smoking two packs a day for 20 years.

The serious damaging effects of smoking cannot be cancelled out by leading an otherwise healthy lifestyle, like keeping fit and eating healthily. Your best bet for reducing your risk is to give up smoking completely.

There is no such thing as safe smoking

You are increasing your cancer risk even if you only smoke a few cigarettes a day. Light or social smoking can still harm your health. Studies have shown that even people who smoke 1-4 cigarettes a day are still more likely to die than non-smokers.

Research we helped to fund has shown that trying just one cigarette can make children more likely to start smoking several years later. More than 80% of smokers start by the age of 19.

Also smokers have a much higher risk of lung cancer than non-smokers, whatever type of cigarette they smoke.

  • Filters and low-tar cigarettes make little difference – your lung cancer risk is not lower. This may be because smokers tend to change the way they smoke in order to satisfy their nicotine craving, for example by taking bigger puffs or smoking more cigarettes.
  • Roll-up tobacco contains the same cancer-causing chemicals as manufactured cigarettes. And some studies have found that they may be even worse for you.

Smoking is highly addictive

Smoking is very addictive because tobacco contains a powerful drug called nicotine. Cigarettes are deliberately designed to give you a fast nicotine hit. It takes less than 20 seconds for the drug to reach your brain from inhaled cigarette smoke.

Nicotine causes addiction in much the same way as heroin or cocaine. It is just as addictive as these ‘harder’ drugs.

This is the reason why most smokers say they want to quit but find it so difficult. If you start smoking, you may find it very hard to eventually stop.

Support can help you quit

Quitting smoking can be hard, but free services and treatments are available to help and these have been shown to improve the chances of quitting successfully. Smokers are much more likely to quit successfully if they get professional support than if they try to go "cold-turkey".

NHS Smokefree has a range of services on offer, from stop smoking groups, one to one counselling or prescription medication to help you control the withdrawal symptoms. Smokefree also provide free email and text support programmes as well as a free app for smartphones, to help keep you on track.

NHS Smokefree helps thousands of people quit smoking every year, so if you are looking to go smokefree in 2014, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, visit or call the NHS Smokefree Helpline to find your way out of smoking:

  • England: 0800 022 4 332
  • Wales: 0800 169 0 169
  • Scotland: 0800 84 84 84
  • Northern Ireland: 0808 812 8008
  • Isle of Man: 01624 642 404

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 15 September 2014