Relative risks (RRs) for cardiovascular disease (CVD) by smoking rate exhibit a concave pattern, with RRs in low rate smokers exceeding a linear extrapolation from higher rate smokers. However, cigarettes/day does not by itself fully characterize smoking-related risks. A reexamination of the concave pattern using a comprehensive representation of smoking may enhance insights.
Data were from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study, a prospective cohort enrolled in four areas of the US in 1987–1989. Follow-up was through 2008. Analyses included 14,233 participants, 245,915 person-years, and 3,411 CVD events.
The concave RRs with cigarettes/day were consistent with cigarettes/day modifying a linear RR association of pack-years with CVD (i.e., strength of the pack-years association depended on cigarettes/day, indicating that the manner of pack-years accrual impacted risk). Smoking fewer cigarettes/day for longer duration was more deleterious than smoking more cigarettes/day for shorter duration (P < 0.01). For 50 pack-years (365,000 cigarettes), estimated RRs of CVD were 2.1 for accrual at 20 cigarettes/day and 1.6 for accrual at 50 cigarettes/day. Years since smoking cessation did not alter the diminishing strength of association with increasing cigarettes/day. Analyses that accounted for competing risks did not affect findings.
Pack-years remained the primary determinant of smoking-related CVD risk; however, accrual influenced RRs. For equal pack-years, smoking fewer cigarettes/day for longer duration was more deleterious than smoking more cigarettes/day for shorter duration. This observation provides clues to better understanding the biological mechanisms, and reinforces the importance of cessation rather than smoking less to reduce CVD risk.