Tobacco, Smoking, and Cancer

Smoking icon for the Premier Cancer Alliance showing tobacco use as a factor that increases cancer risk

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.(1)

Are you curious why the cancer risks of tobacco and smoking are so high? Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also found in wood varnish, the insecticide DDT, rat poison, and nail polish remover. The ashes, tar, gases, and other poisons — such as arsenic — in cigarettes harm your body over time. They damage your heart and lungs. They also make it harder for you to fight infection.

Once you quit smoking, you will significantly lower your risk of death from lung cancer and other diseases, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Emphysema
  • Cervical cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Oral cancer
  • Throat cancer

Secondhand smoke — also called environmental tobacco smoke — comes from a burning tobacco product and from the smoke exhaled by smokers. Inhaling secondhand smoke is called involuntary or passive smoking.

Nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke may:

  • Develop cancer or heart disease
  • Have breathing problems
  • Get colds and the flu more easily
  • Die younger than people who don’t breath secondhand smoke

Pregnant women who breathe secondhand smoke may:

  • Give birth to low-weight babies
  • Have babies who are more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Children who breathe secondhand smoke may:

  • Have breathing problems, such as asthma
  • Get more ear infections
  • Develop more lung infections, such as pneumonia (2)

Tobacco, smoking, and cancer risk: research shows that people who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risks of developing cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), larynx, and esophagus than people who use either alcohol or tobacco alone. In fact, for oral and pharyngeal cancers, the risks associated with using both alcohol and tobacco are multiplicative; that is, they are greater than would be expected from adding the individual risks associated with alcohol and tobacco together. (3)

Resources to quit smoking:


  1. Reproduced from Tobacco-Related Mortality published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Reducing Tobacco Use: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2000.
  3. Hashibe M, Brennan P, Chuang SC, et al. Interaction between tobacco and alcohol use and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 2009;18(2):541-550.

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