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.
Who smokes cigarettes?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that about 43.8 million US adults were cigarette smokers in 2011 (the most recent year for which numbers are available). This is 19% of all adults (21.6% of men, 16.5% of women) − about 1 out of 5 people.
When broken down by race/ethnicity, the numbers were as follows:
American Indians/Alaska Natives
There were more cigarette smokers in the younger age groups. In 2011, the CDC reported 22.1% of people 25 to 44 years old were current smokers, compared with 7.9% of those aged 65 or older.
High school and middle school students
Nationwide, 18% of high school students were smoking cigarettes in 2011. The most recent survey of middle school students, done in 2011, shows that about 4% 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 cigarettes?
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.
Cancers caused by smoking
Cigarette smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths. It is linked with an increased risk of these cancers:
- Larynx (voice box)
- Oral cavity (mouth, tongue, and lips)
- Nose and sinuses
- Pharynx (throat)
- Esophagus (tube connecting the throat to the stomach)
- Ovary (a type called mucinous ovarian cancer)
- Colorectum (the colon and/or the rectum)
- Acute myeloid leukemia
Smoking accounts for 87% of 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 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 many other deadly health problems − 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’s also a cause of low birth-weight in infants. It has been linked to a higher risk of birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), too.
Smoking can make pneumonia and asthma worse and it has been linked to other health problems, 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 vascular surgeons (surgeons who work on blood vessels) 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 called Secondhand Smoke and Women and Smoking.)
Effects of smoking on how long you live and your quality of life
Cigarette smokers die younger than non-smokers. In fact, according to a study done in the late 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking shortened male smokers’ lives by 13.2 years and female smokers’ lives by 14.5 years. Men and women who smoke are much more likely to die between the ages of 35 and 69 than those who have never smoked.
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 many diseases. The diseases often seen are 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.
Last Medical Review: 11/08/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013