Smoking and Permanent DNA Damage

Are you thinking of starting a tobacco habit for the first time? How about resuming an old habit that you thought you’d whipped? Either way, a recent study by the Masonic Cancer Center and the pharmacology department of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis has some really important news for you: Smoking causes DNA damage within minutes of inhaling.

smokinghansLead study author Stephen S. Hecht stated in a press release via the American Chemical Society that “The results reported here should serve as a stark warning to those who are considering starting smoking.” This study is also featured in the current edition of the journal of Chemical Research in Toxicology, reports the 15 January 2011 issue of Bloomberg Busineweek’s Health Day section. With all these impressive scholarly publications, it does appear that Hecht’s study should be given very strict attention by new smokers, relapsers, and smoking “wannabe” young people.

Hecht and his investigators focused the study on a known class of cancer-causing substances found in tobacco smoke called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemical beasties inflict significant damage to DNA, thus playing a large role in the development of lung cancer. Hecht pointed out that cancer caused by smoking is linked to at least 3,000 deaths per day, worldwide. The study’s lowdown is that a smoker’s DNA becomes permanently damaged within 15 to 30 minutes of each puff. So, smokers and potential smokers, just do the math: How much DNA damage do you cause yourself by taking 12 puffs from each cigarette? How long do you expect to get away with this before the lung cancer “gotcha!” catches up with you?

Addiction professionals generally agree on reasons why young people start smoking as well as reasons why ex-smokers relapse back into their old smoking patterns. Kids and young adults face the onslaught of peer pressure, of course, bringing to mind the lyrics of the Rolling Stone’s song, “Satisfaction:” “He can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” Decades ago, this was one of the songs beamed into outer space by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – not the best way to introduce Planet Earth to the universe! (Guitarist Keith Richards, a life-long smoker and drug user, isn’t looking too good, either…).

As for relapsing smokers, their primary reason for resuming the habit is personal and/or occupational stress. As cited in numerous stress management programs, the resumption of substance abuse –including smoking and chewing tobacco — is usually triggered by unpleasant feelings like anger, grief, anxiety and depression. Experimentation by youthful wannabes and relapses by smokers who had kicked the habit for more than a decade accounts for nearly all those at risk for rapid DNA damage and cancer caused by tobacco use. One area, however, not addressed by up-to-date smoking researchers but known to addiction professionals is that addictive behavior like substance abuse, gambling and compulsive sexual activity is nearly always accompanied by cigar or cigarette smoking. Go figure.

Even Hecht’s research team was surprised by the speed with which cigarette smoke attacked human DNA. The study was conducted with 12 volunteer smokers; given the study’s grim results, one can’t help but wonder if they’re still smoking!