Common questions about smoking and cancer
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- I know someone who smoked 'til old age and stayed healthy. Why didn't they get cancer?
- I know someone who never smoked but still got cancer. Why?
- Is there any point in giving up if I'm constantly surrounded by traffic fumes?
- Do roll-ups cause cancer?
- Can smoking cigars, pipes or bidis cause cancer?
- Does smokeless tobacco cause cancer?
Smoking causes cancer. But this doesn't mean that all smokers will definitely get cancer or that all non-smokers won't. It means that smoking greatly increases the risk of this disease. Smokers are, on average, much more likely to get cancer than non-smokers.
In a similar way, we can say that eating sugary foods is a cause of tooth decay. This doesn't mean that all children who eat sugary foods will end up with decayed teeth. It means that, on average, children who eat lots of sugary foods are more likely to develop tooth decay than those who avoid such foods.
The fact is that half of all smokers eventually die from cancer, or other smoking-related illnesses. And a quarter of smokers die in middle age, between 35 and 69.
Smoking is the most important cause of cancer but it is not the only one. Even for lung cancer. Although four in five cases are caused by smoking, the remainder are linked to other factors like asbestos and radon gas.
Our risk of cancer depends on a combination of our genes, our lifestyle choices and our environment. Because of this, no single action will completely guarantee to protect you against cancer. But avoiding smoking, or giving up, are the best things you can do to stack the odds in your favour.
Yes. We know that both smoking and air pollution are linked to lung cancer, but the effect of smoking is considerably larger. The lung cancer risk from smoking is at least 25 times greater than that from air pollution.
In the UK, three out of every hundred cases of lung cancer are caused by air pollution. The rest are mostly caused by smoking. Giving up smoking is the best present you can give yourself.
Scientists have shown that smoking cigars and pipes increases the risk of cancers of the lung, mouth, food pipe (oesophagus), voice box (larynx) and more. Smoking these products is just as bad for you as smoking cigarettes.
Smoking bidis, the most common form of tobacco in south Asian communities, also causes the same types of cancer.
In short, there is no safe type of smoked tobacco.
Almost all types of smokeless tobacco can cause mouth cancer. They could also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, and other conditions including gum disease and heart disease. Some types or brands can be more dangerous than others. This is because different products can have very different levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
Most smokeless tobacco products in the UK are used by South Asian communities. In these communities, dry chewing tobacco is often used as part of a 'betel quid' or 'paan'. These consist of a mixture of betel nut (or areca nut), slaked lime and various herbs and spices, wrapped in a betel leaf. Betel nut itself can cause cancer, so chewing betel quids can cause mouth cancer even if no tobacco is added.
You can find out more information on our smokeless tobacco page.
No, low-tar cigarettes just as harmful as regular brands. The packs may show you lower tar and nicotine numbers. But these numbers are based on tests that use machines, not real people. When real people smoke 'low tar' cigarettes, they breathe in much harder to satisfy their nicotine cravings.
So even if the cigarettes taste weaker, they are still doing your body as much damage as 'stronger' brands. Besides, cigarettes contain many other harmful chemicals besides tar and nicotine.
It is a myth that some cigarette brands are safe to smoke. While different brands may vary in their ingredients, all of them are dangerous to your health.
Find out more in our What's in a cigarette? page.
The more cigarettes you smoke a day, the higher your risk of cancer. But you are increasing your cancer risk even if you only smoke a few cigarettes a day. Light smoking can still endanger your health.
Studies have shown that even people who smoke 1-4 cigarettes a day are still almost three times more likely to die of heart disease and lung cancer than non-smokers.
Some scientists have found that the number of years you spend smoking affects your cancer risk more strongly than the number of cigarettes you smoke a day. For example, smoking one pack a day for 40 years is much more dangerous than smoking two packs a day for 20 years.
The best way to reduce your risk of cancer is to give up smoking completely.
But these protective effects are very small compared to the damaging effects of smoking. If you are a smoker, then keeping fit and eating healthily is not going to cancel out your increased risk of cancer. Your best bet for reducing your risk is to give up smoking completely.
Your risk of cancer increases with the number of years you spend as a smoker. While your risk of cancer will be low when you first start, bear in mind that tobacco contains nicotine, a highly addictive drug.
This is the reason why most smokers say they want to quit but find it so difficult. If you start smoking, you may find it very hard to eventually stop.
No. Besides lung cancer, smoking can also increase the risk of cancers of the food pipe (oesophagus), throat and mouth. Even if you don't inhale, cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke can be absorbed by the cells of your mouth.
It is unclear if cannabis or marijuana itself could cause cancer when smoked. But people who smoke marijuana often mix it with tobacco first. Smoking tobacco in any form is always harmful to your health and very addictive.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team