What is the real link between tobacco use and cancer? And if you smoke, how do you know if you should be concerned?

Tobacco Use and How it Can Cause Cancer

How does tobacco cause cancer | Understanding your risk and warning signs

Smoking is now known to increases your risk of all of the following types of cancers:

  • Lung
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Throat
  • Bladder
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Stomach
  • Pancreatic
  • Colon
  • Rectal
  • Cervical
  • Acute myeloid leukemia

Some of the most common areas of the body where smoking-related cancers first form are the areas used in taking in and removing the toxins in tobacco smoke—the mouth, esophagus, lungs, and bladder. It makes logical sense that these areas are greatly impacted.

This risk is not limited to cigarettes: other tobacco products like cigars, cigarillos, bidis and hookahs increase risk of various types of cancers. There is also evidence to suggest vaping e-cigarettes may contribute to higher cancer risk, as it also involves heating and inhaling toxins like heavy metals, flavor chemicals and volatile organic compounds. More research is needed to understand the full health impacts of e-cigarettes or vapes.


How does tobacco cause cancer?

Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including about 70 known carcinogens (meaning we know they cause cancer). But how is cancer growth actually triggered in your body?

The short answer is that the toxins in cigarette smoke cause gene mutations. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can bind to our DNA molecules, and cause changes in them, making errors in our genetic material. This can lead to abnormal cell growth: cancer.

“Smokeless” tobaccos can cause cancer too.

Smokeless tobacco products (often called chew, snuff, dip, or snus) also greatly increase your risk of many cancers, and not just cancers of the mouth and throat. For more on tobacco use and oral health, visit our tobacco and oral health page.

Secondhand smoke and cancer

Breathing secondhand smoke also causes cancer in people who don’t smoke, including lung cancer, in addition to other health harms. This comes both from “mainstream” smoke, which comes off the end of a burning cigarette or cigar, as well as “sidestream” smoke, which is exhaled by the person smoking. There is early evidence to suggest a connection between secondhand smoke inhalation and cancers of the nose, throat, voice box, breast and bladder, as well as leukemia, lymphoma, and brain tumors in children. There is no known safe level of secondhand (or “passive”) smoke inhalation.

If I use tobacco, what’s my risk of getting cancer?

There are many factors that play into an individual’s cancer risk, including family history, other environmental factors, and length of time/quantity smoked over time. But tobacco use greatly increases your risk of some cancers. For example, according to the CDC, compared to people who have not smoked, you are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop, and die from, lung cancer as a smoker. And smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer, according to the Mouth Cancer Foundation. People who use chewing tobacco, on the other hand, are around 50 times more likely to develop mouth cancers, compared to those who do not use tobacco.

Similarly to health harms like stroke, heart disease, and blindness caused by smoking, your cancer risk is growing over time with the amount you smoke. The toxins in cigarette smoke damage your body on a cellular level bit by bit and will very likely result in disease or disability at some point if you smoke long-term.

How can I find out more about my individual risk and health?

Speak with your doctor about screening and any concerns or new signs or symptoms you may have. Find out more about lung cancer screening here. Early signs and symptoms will vary by type of cancer and by case. That said, there are some common warning signs that can be key red flags, for example:

  • Weight loss
  • Persistent tiredness
  • Dietary or digestive changes
  • Persistent fever or night sweats
  • Swelling, lumps anywhere on the body, or changes to the skin
  • Unexplained, persistent pain
  • Cough that doesn’t go away

You can also find more information on cancer screening in New Hampshire from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Cancer page.

If you’re considering quitting tobacco

If and when you are interested in quitting, help is available, free of charge, including medication and counseling support from former smokers. Speak with your doctor at your next visit, or visit our quitting page to learn more and get started.


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