Tobacco Policy & Resources

Health Effects

Smoking contains many toxic substances, including carcinogens and radiation. The effects of these substances are not just on the lungs, but also harm many other systems of the body. Smoking is the single greatest avoidable cause of disease and death and second-hand smoke is also harmful.

Surgeon General's Findings on Secondhand Smoke Exposure

1. Secondhand smoke exposure causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke.

  • Supporting Evidence
    • Secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing), including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide.
    • Secondhand smoke has been designated as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has concluded that secondhand smoke is an occupational carcinogen.

2. Exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer.

  • Supporting Evidence
    • Concentrations of many cancer-causing and toxic chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.
    • Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can have immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and interferes with the normal functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of a heart attack.
    • Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 - 30 percent.
    • Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 - 30 percent.

3. The scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

  • Supporting Evidence
    • Short exposures to secondhand smoke can cause blood platelets to become stickier, damage the lining of blood vessels, decrease coronary flow velocity reserves, and reduce heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of a heart attack.
    • Secondhand smoke contains many chemicals that can quickly irritate and damage the lining of the airways. Even brief exposure can result in upper airway changes in healthy persons and can lead to more frequent and more asthma attacks in children who already have asthma

Lung Disease and Health Effects from the American Lung Association

  • Cigarette smoke contains over 4,800 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Smoking is directly responsible for approximately 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and approximately 80-90 percent of COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths.
  • About 8.6 million people in the U.S. have at least one serious illness caused by smoking. That means that for every person who dies of a smoking-related disease, there are 20 more people who suffer from at least one serious illness associated with smoking.
  • Among current smokers, chronic lung disease accounts for 73 percent of smoking-related conditions.
  • The list of diseases caused by smoking includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), coronary heart disease, stroke, abdominal aortic aneurysm, acute myeloid leukemia, cataract, pneumonia, periodontitis, and bladder, esophageal, laryngeal, lung, oral, throat, cervical, kidney, stomach, and pancreatic cancers. Smoking is also a major factor in a variety of other conditions and disorders, including slowed healing of wounds, infertility, and peptic ulcer disease.
  • Secondhand smoke involuntarily inhaled by nonsmokers from other people's cigarettes is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a known human (Group A) carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 46,000 (ranging 22,700-69,600) heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers annually in the United States.

Tobacco Use and Radiation from the Environmental Protection Agency

  • Cigarettes are a source of radiation:
    • Smokers inhale radioactive materials that, over time, contribute large doses of radiation to the lungs
    • Radiation can also come from second hand smoke
    • Naturally-occurring radioactive minerals accumulate on the surfaces of tobacco leaves, and the minerals remain throughout the manufacturing process. The use of the phosphate fertilizer Apatite - which contains radium, lead-210, and polonium-210 - also increases the amount of radiation in tobacco plants.
    • The accumulated radium mostly emits alpha and gamma radiation
    • Lead and polonium collect and for decades (the half life is 22.3 years)
    • Tar traps even more of these particles

Additional Resources

For more information on ways to quit smoking, please visit: CROSSROADS or QuitlineNC