‘Smoking can do quicker harm than originally thought’

Researchers at University of Minnesota warn that DNA damage can result within minutes of inhaling tobacco smoke.

man smoking 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
man smoking 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Contrary to scientific belief that it takes years of smoking before the toxins in tobacco cause damage to the DNA in the cells – possibly leading to lung cancer – researchers at the University of Minnesota have found that such genetic damage occurs within minutes.
In an article just published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, published by the American Chemical Society, Dr. Stephen Hecht of the university’s department of medicinal chemistry said the new research serves as “a stark warning” to those tempted to start smoking, as well as to those who are already lighting up.
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The evidence indicates that harmful substances in tobacco smoke – called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs), are one of the culprits in causing lung cancer. Until now, however, scientists had not detailed the specific way in which the PAHs in cigarette smoke cause DNA damage in humans.
The scientists added a labeled PAH, phenanthrene, to cigarettes and tracked its fate in 12 smoking volunteers who smoked them. They found that phenanthrene quickly forms a toxic substance in the blood that causes mutations in the cells’ DNA that can cause cancer.
Tobacco smoke is known to cause not only lung cancer, but also 18 other kinds of tumors as well.
The smokers developed maximum levels of the substance in a time frame that surprised even the researchers – just 15 to 30 minutes after the volunteers finished smoking.
Researchers, who received funding from the US National Cancer Institute, said the effect is so fast that it’s equivalent to injecting the substance directly into the bloodstream.
“This study is unique,” wrote Hecht, an internationally recognized expert on cancer-causing substances found in cigarette smoke and smokeless tobacco. “It is the first to investigate human metabolism of a PAH specifically delivered by inhalation in cigarette smoke, without interference by other sources of exposure such as air pollution or the diet. The results reported here should serve as a stark warning to those who are considering starting to smoke cigarettes,” the article declares.
Asked to comment, Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking chairman Amos Hausner said the findings make it even more urgent to prevent the exposure of nonsmokers to the smoke of others – in addition to boosting smoking cessation efforts.
He urged the passing of a private member’s bill by Kadima MK Gideon Ezra that would provide mandatory lessons to all high school pupils about the dangers of tobacco. Ezra, until recently a lifelong heavy smoker, initiated the bill after he himself contracted lung cancer. He said the educational effort would help discourage young people from taking their first puff.
Meanwhile, a precedent-making decision was handed down by Judge Haim Armon of the Northern Regional Labor Court that an employee, A.F., would receive NIS 25,000 for being exposed to tobacco smoke against his will while working in the Kiryat Shmona Municipality, which did not enforce nosmoking laws.
He did not have to prove that his health was harmed. Until now, the highest compensation handed down by a labor court for this offense was NIS 5,000.
A.F. complained in writing several times to senior officials at the municipality about the lack of enforcement, but they claimed “nothing can be done.”
The court noted that the municipality had placed ashtrays throughout the building, including those spaces where smoking was prohibited, even though this is illegal.
A.F.’s lawyer noted that it was the obligation of the municipality to enforce non-smoking laws throughout the city, as well as on its own premises.