Overview of Smoking & Health Effects of Smoking

Tobacco has a negative effect on almost every organ of the body. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, resulting in more than 443,000 deaths each year. Worldwide, recent studies have shown that tobacco is responsible for about 6 million deaths each year.

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In March 2012, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported that, from 1975 to 2000, nearly 800,000 deaths from lung cancer in the United States were prevented due to declines in smoking as a result of tobacco control programs and policies. This data was presented in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the research was funded by the NCI.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the overall rate of cigarette smoking in adults over the age of 18 in the United States dropped from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 17.8 percent in 2013—the lowest rate since record keeping began in 1965. This report, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on November 26, 2014, also indicated that the number of cigarette smokers in the United States fell from 45.1 million in 2005 to 42.1 million in 2013.

A report called Smokeless Tobacco and Public Health: A Global Perspective was released by the CDC and the National Cancer Institute in December 2014. According to this report, more than 300 million people in at least 70 countries use harmful smokeless tobacco products. Cigar smokers and smokeless tobacco (chew or spit tobacco) users have similar health risks as cigarette smokers, including oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer, as well as oral health problems like mucosal lesions, leukoplakia, and periodontal disease. Smokeless tobacco products also contain nicotine, and users often demonstrate signs of dependence similar to those of cigarette smokers.

Effects of Secondhand Smoke

Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)—or secondhand smoke—results in approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in non-smokers. Secondhand smoke is what is given off by the end of the burning cigarette and by the smoker's exhalations.

Short-term Effects of Smoking

Short-term effects of smoking include more frequent respiratory illnesses such as coughs, colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Among children and adolescents exposed to secondhand smoke, rates of asthma, ear infection and lower respiratory infections are higher.

Long-term Effects of Smoking

The long-term effects of smoking are extensive. There are numerous diseases linked to smoking. Smoking can cause cancer of the mouth and throat and lung cancer, and can increase the risk for stomach (gastric) cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, and pancreatic cancer. About one third of all cancers are linked to tobacco use—and 90 percent of lung cancer cases are linked to smoking.

Smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, (e.g., emphysema, chronic bronchitis), which is severe lung damage. Smoking reduces blood circulation and narrows blood vessels, depriving the body of oxygen and increasing the risk for heart disease. Non-smokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are 25 percent more likely to develop heart disease. Smoking also doubles the risk for stroke and increases the risk for developing cataracts.

Smoking poses additional health risks for women. It increases the risk for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and leads to loss of bone density (osteoporosis), increasing the chances of hip and spine fractures in postmenopausal women.

Women of childbearing age who smoke face higher rates of infertility and greater risks for complications during pregnancy. Smoking during pregnancy also increases the unborn baby's health risks (e.g., premature birth, respiratory illnesses, low birth weight). After birth, the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) doubles for babies exposed to secondhand smoke.

Children and teens are especially vulnerable to the hazards of smoking. Because their bodies are not fully mature, smoking interferes with normal lung development in those who begin smoking as children or adolescents. Young people who smoke may become more strongly addicted to cigarettes and face an even greater risk for developing lung cancer than those who start smoking later in life. Every day, approximately 4,000 children under the age of 18 try a cigarette for the first time and 1,000 become regular smokers.

Teenagers who smoke are more likely to have depression or other psychological problems. They are also more likely to engage in other dangerous behaviors, such as using alcohol and other drugs.

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D.,Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Jul 2006

Last Modified: 24 Apr 2015