RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. In your health today we'll consider the risks of sporadic or light cigarette smoking. President Obama has indicated he'll abide by the White House no-smoking policy. And in an interview with Tom Brokaw just after the election, he said he had quit cigarettes, for the most part.

(Soundbite of TV show "Meet the Press," December 7, 2008)

President BARACK OBAMA: You know, there are times where I've fallen off the wagon. Well...

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Guest Host, "Meet the Press"): Oh, wait a minute, that means you haven't stopped?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, the - fair enough.

MONTAGNE: Fair enough. Well, experts say that quitting cigarettes, quitting smoking for good, even if you're only smoking a few a day or even a week can drastically cut the risk of heart disease and cancers later in life. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: When President Obama was in his early 20s and living in an apartment in East Harlem, he'd sit on the fire escape with his roommate after work on nice evenings and smoke. In his 1995 autobiography, he wrote he'd sit on the stoop and, quote, "study dusk washing blue over the city." The image could make some look back longingly to the days when a cigarette helped spur a contemplative moment or an easy camaraderie.

Dr. JONATHAN SAMET (Chair, Department of Preventative Medicine, University of Southern California): Well, it's not surprising that people might think back to their youth and the interactions that at the time seemed to have been made pleasant by tobacco.

AUBREY: Jonathan Samet chairs the department of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California. He says what was missing in those days was an appreciation of the dangers of tobacco. Clearly, he says, President Obama's active lifestyle, which includes intense cardiovascular workouts on the basketball court, has lessened his risk of heart disease compared to people who smoke and don't exercise. But he stresses there is no safe level of tobacco use. Smoking just one or two cigarettes a day puts people at risk.

Dr. SAMET: Even at that level, there's roughly a doubling of the risk of heart disease for people who smoke that amount compared to people who are not smoking at all.

AUBREY: So that's the bad news. Tobacco does pose risks for so-called chippers or very light smokers, particularly if they've been heavier users of tobacco earlier in life. The good news is that quitting completely seems to reverse a lot of the damage. Kenneth Warner is dean of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health.

Dr. KENNETH E. WARNER (Dean, University of Michigan's School of Public Health): When smokers quit, within about three years or a little bit more, their risk of heart disease associated with smoking reverts to that of a never smoker.

AUBREY: The reduction is quick and dramatic, and it includes not only heart attacks, but the risk of strokes, blood clots and chronic bronchitis. Unfortunately, Warner says, the drop-off in the risk of lung cancer and other cancers is not as dramatic.

Dr. WARNER: Cigarette smokers are exposing themselves to over 50 known causes of cancer in humans every single time they are sucking on a cigarette.

AUBREY: And he says there's no way to completely undo the damage that comes from inhaling so many toxic chemicals. But one thing experts agree on is that it's never too late to quit; there's always some benefit to stopping. And if you do it before the age of 50, there's a measurable decline in your risk of premature death. Michael Thun is an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society.

Dr. MICHAEL THUN (Vice President, Epidemiology and Surveillance Research, American Cancer Society): People who stop smoking before the age of 50 cut the risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared to those who continue to smoke.

AUBREY: So, if you happen to be, say, 47? Take note, there's benefit in quitting. And experts say living in a house with a no-smoking policy may help enforce the commitment. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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