Cigarette Smoking

Cigarette Smoking

The 1982 United States Surgeon General's report stated that "Cigarette smoking is the major single cause of cancer mortality [death] in the United States." This statement is as true today as it was then.
Tobacco use is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States. Because cigarette smoking and tobacco use are acquired behaviors -- activities that people choose to do -- smoking is the most preventable cause of death in our society.
Here is a brief overview of cigarette smoking: who smokes, how smoking affects health, what makes it so hard to quit, and what some of the many rewards of quitting are. For more on these topics, see our Guide to Quitting Smoking.

Who smokes?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 46 million US adults were current smokers in 2009 (the most recent year for which numbers are available). This is 20.6% of all adults (23.5% of men, 17.9% of women) -- about 1 out of 5 people.
When broken down by race/ethnicity, the numbers were as follows:
    African Americans
    American Indians/Alaska Natives
    Asian Americans
    People of multiple races
There were more cigarette smokers in the younger age groups. In 2009, the CDC reported 24.% of those 25 to 44 years old were current smokers, compared with 9.5% of those aged 65 or older.

High school and middle school students

Nationwide, 20% of high school students were smoking cigarettes in 2009. The most recent survey of middle school students shows that about 5% were smoking cigarettes. In both high schools and middle schools, white and Hispanic students were more likely to smoke cigarettes than other races/ethnicities. (For more information, see our document, Child and Teen Tobacco Use.)
What kinds of illness and death are caused by smoking?
About half of all Americans who keep smoking will die because of the habit. Each year about 443,000 people in the United States die from illnesses related to tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.

Cancer caused by smoking

Cigarette smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths. It is linked with an increased risk of the following cancers:
  • Lung
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Oral cavity (mouth, tongue, and lips)
  • Pharynx (throat)
  • Esophagus (tube connecting the throat to the stomach)
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas
  • Cervix
  • Kidney
  • Bladder
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
Smoking is responsible for almost 9 out of 10 lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women, and is one of the hardest cancers to treat. Lung cancer is a disease that can often be prevented. Some religious groups that promote non-smoking as part of their religion, such as Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists, have much lower rates of lung cancer and other smoking-related cancers.

Other health problems caused by smoking

As serious as cancer is, it accounts for less than half of the deaths related to smoking each year. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease, aneurysms, bronchitis, emphysema, and stroke.
Using tobacco can damage a woman's reproductive health and hurt babies. Tobacco use is linked with reduced fertility and a higher risk of miscarriage, early delivery (premature birth), and stillbirth. It is also a cause of low birth-weight in infants. It has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), too.
Smoking can make pneumonia and asthma worse. It has been linked to other health problems, too, including gum disease, cataracts, bone thinning, hip fractures, and peptic ulcers. Some studies have also linked smoking to macular degeneration, an eye disease that can cause blindness.
Smoking can cause or worsen poor blood flow in the arms and legs (peripheral vascular disease or PVD.) Surgery to improve the blood flow often doesn't work in people who keep smoking. Because of this, many surgeons who work on blood vessels (vascular surgeons) won't do certain surgeries on patients with PVD unless they stop smoking.
The smoke from cigarettes (called secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) can also have harmful health effects on those exposed to it. Adults and children can have health problems from breathing secondhand smoke. (See our documents, Secondhand Smoke and Women and Smoking.)

Effects of smoking on how long you live and your quality of life

Based on data collected from 1995 to 1999, the CDC estimated that adult male smokers lost an average of 13.2 years of life and female smokers lost 14.5 years of life because of smoking.
But not all of the health problems related to smoking result in deaths. Smoking affects a smoker's health in many ways, harming nearly every organ of the body and causing diseases. According to the CDC, in 2000 about 8.6 million people had at least one chronic disease because they smoked or had smoked. Many of these people were suffering from more than one smoking-related problem. The diseases seen most often were chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. And some studies have found that male smokers may be more likely to be sexually impotent (have erectile dysfunction) than non-smokers. These problems can steal away a person's quality of life long before death. Smoking-related illness can limit a person's daily life by making it harder to breathe, get around, work, or play.

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