It's one of the biggest myths about smoking: "If I just cut back, my health will improve."
No such luck, says a team of Mayo Clinic researchers, led by Dr. Richard Hurt.
"There is no safe lowest level of smoking. The best way is not to smoke at all," Hurt says.
Hurt and his colleagues followed 23 heavy smokers, people like Doug Coen--who inhaled 2 packs a day--and asked them to cut back to 10 or 15 cigarettes a day over a two month period. Then they measured specific chemical markers linked to cancer. One of the markers went down, two stayed the same, and one even went up when smoking was reduced.
"Even though there was a 50 percent reduction in the overall smoking amongst this group, the markers of harm, which are blood tests and urine tests associated with cancer--did not go down," Hurt says.
It wasn't what Doug Coen was hoping to hear. "I guess, deep inside, I was probably hoping that yeah, if I could cut down and it was still good for me I could have the best of both worlds and that, unfortunately, doesn't work out," he says.
Coen had smoked for 30 years and had tried to kick the habit five times. The new study, he says, has motivated him to quit once and for all.
"I know that having even maybe one, two, up to five cigarettes a day is just as harmful as relatively smoking a whole pack or a pack and a half," he says.
That's the message scientists are hoping to convey. Perhaps convincing other heavy smokers to seek the most aggressive treatment to quit.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed