(Getty Images)

By Denise Mann

MONDAY, Feb. 15, 2010 (Health.com) — Cigar aficionados and pipe smokers often claim that their habit is safer than because they don't inhale. Even if they think they're just harmlessly puffing away, they're still damaging their lungs, a new study shows.

People who smoke cigars and pipes, but have never smoked cigarettes, are more than twice as likely as people who never smoked to have decreased lung function, according to the study. Cigar and pipe smokers who smoke cigarettes (or used to) are at even greater risk; those smokers were nearly 3.5 times more likely than nonsmokers to have decreased lung function.

The cigar and pipe smokers also had elevated levels of a nicotine by-product called cotinine in their urine, the researchers found.

"Some pipe and cigar smokers say they do not inhale, or inhale less, than cigarette smokers," says the lead author of the study, Josanna Rodriguez, MD, a fellow in pulmonary medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. "The elevated cotinine levels found in this study, however, prove that nicotine is being absorbed when you smoke pipes or cigars."

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