A study of 219 women with the disease found that smoking one to seven cigarettes a day was enough to raise their risk of developing the condition.
Those who gave up smoking lowered their risk by a third. But this risk remained higher than in non-smokers for at least 15 years after quitting.
Lead author Daniela Di Giuseppe said: 'Stopping smoking is important for many health reasons, including the increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis for smokers.
'But the clearly increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, even many years after giving up, is another reason to stop smoking as soon as possible, and highlight the importance of persuading women not to start at all.'