The prevalence of very light smoking has increased among young women in the US – drawn by advertizers associating the habit with “independence, attractiveness and sophistication.”

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Very light smoking is defined as no more than 5 cigarettes a day.

The study, of 9,789 women aged between 18 and 25 years who took part in the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States, was conducted by Xiaoyin Li and coauthors and published by the CDC in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The researchers say that although any level of smoking is harmful to young women’s health, light smoking has become more attractive among young females emerging into adulthood.

“Yet, little is known about very light smoking in women in emerging adulthood. The tobacco industry developed campaigns to appeal to young women smokers.”

Smoking cessation programs, says the study, should be tailored to the higher likelihood of very light smokers, compared with other smokers, being:

  • Relatively young
  • From minority groups
  • Having at least some college education.

The study also indicated a lower likelihood of very light smokers – who are defined as smoking no more than 5 cigarettes a day – being married.

Other findings cited by the researchers include: “The characteristics of very light smokers (poor psychological adjustment and tendency to misuse other substances) were similar to the characteristics of other smokers.” They add:

However, very light smokers were more likely than other smokers to recognize high risks in smoking, less likely to report nicotine dependence, and more likely to be nondaily smokers.”

The introduction by the authors sets the increasing proportion of very light smoking against a backdrop over the past 2 decades of both the prevalence of smoking and the average cigarette consumption declining in the US.

With very light smoking being common and of “global concern” among young women, the researchers set out to understand how the characteristics of these women compared with those who had never smoked or were former, light (6-16 cigarettes a day), or heavier (more than 16 cigarettes a day) smokers.

This would then inform smoking cessation interventions based on sociodemographic factors, psychological adjustment, misuse of other substances, attitudes toward smoking and (among current smokers) daily smoking, age at smoking initiation and nicotine dependence.

The results of the survey showed that, among the current young adult female smokers in the US:

  • 62.4% were very light smokers
  • 26.7% were light smokers
  • 10.8% were heavier smokers.

About 71.3% of very light smokers were nondaily smokers. The results overall were that, of the 9,789 participants, 4,069 (41.6%) were never smokers, 2,756 (28.2%) were former smokers and 2,964 (30.3%) were the current smokers above.

Other findings included that never-smokers were less likely than very light smokers to report lifetime depression and psychological distress in the past month. Also: “Very light smokers showed less favorable psychological and substance use profiles than current nonsmokers.”

Never-smokers were less likely than very light smokers to binge drink or use illicit drugs, and they perceived smoking to be of higher risk.

The study’s headline finding was “consistent with findings in previous research” in that “women were more likely to engage in very light and intermittent smoking than heavier or daily smoking, and intermittent smoking was particularly characteristic of very light smokers.”

The authors conclude: “Overall, these findings point to a unique profile for very light smokers among women in emerging adulthood.” They add:

“Health educators and health care providers working with women in emerging adulthood need to recognize the high prevalence of very light smoking in this population and screen for any level of tobacco use.”