WASHINGTON — Think the occasional cigarette won't hurt? Even a bit of social smoking — or inhaling someone else's secondhand smoke — could be enough to trigger a heart attack, says the newest surgeon general's report on the killer the nation just can't kick.
Lung cancer is what people usually fear from smoking, and it's a risk that can take years to strike. But today's report says there's no doubt that tobacco smoke begins poisoning immediately — as more than 7,000 chemicals in each puff rapidly spread through the body to cause cellular damage in nearly every organ.
"That one puff on that cigarette could be the one that causes your heart attack," said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.
Or the one that triggers someone else's: "I advise people to try to avoid being around smoking any way that you can," she said.
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About 443,000 Americans die from tobacco-caused illnesses every year. While the smoking rate has dropped dramatically since 1964, when the first surgeon general's report declared tobacco deadly, progress has stalled in the past decade. About 46 million adults — one in five — still smoke, and tens of millions more are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. The government had hoped to drop the smoking rate to 12 percent by this year, a goal not only missed but that's now been put off to 2020.
Today's report is the 30th issued by the nation's surgeons general to warn the public about tobacco's risks.
This newest report is unusual because it devotes more than 700 pages to detail the biology of how cigarette smoke reacts in the body — including the latest genetic findings to help explain why some people become more addicted than others, and why some smokers develop tobacco-caused disease faster than others.
There is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke, whether you deliberately inhale it or are a nonsmoker who breathes in other people's fumes, the report concludes.
But more recently it's become clear that some of the harms — especially those involving the heart — kick in right away, said Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That means social smoking, the occasional cigarette at a party, can be enough to trigger a heart attack in someone whose arteries already are silently clogged, he said.