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Cancer and Tobacco

What is the link between tobacco and cancer?

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for lung, mouth, throat, bladder, and many other cancers. In fact, smoking is the cause of cancer in 1 out of 5 people diagnosed in the U.S.

All tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff, contain the following:

  • Poisonous substances (toxins), like cyanide, lead, and arsenic 

  • Known cancer-causing agents called carcinogens (There are at least 70 carcinogens in tobacco smoke.)

  • Nicotine, an addictive substance

Each tobacco product is linked to an increased risk for certain kinds of cancer:

Tobacco product



Cigarettes, the most common form of tobacco used, cause about 90% of all lung cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. Smokers are also at a higher risk for mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box (larynx), kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum cancer compared with nonsmokers. Smoking is linked to increased risk for a type of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia, too. In addition, cigarette smoking is linked to nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, 250 of which are known to be harmful.

Cigars and pipes

Cigars and pipes are often believed to be a less harmful way to smoke tobacco. But even when not inhaling, cigar and pipe smokers are at increased risk for cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, voice box, and lungs. Pipe smokers also are at increased risk for lip cancers on the parts of the lip where the pipe stem rests. Cigars take longer to burn and contain more tobacco than cigarettes, so they increase the amount of secondhand smoke exposure, too.

Chewing tobacco and snuff

Spit tobacco, also known as chewing tobacco and snuff, is a form of tobacco that is put between the cheek and gum. Chewing tobacco can be in the form of leaf tobacco or plug tobacco. Snuff is a powdered form of tobacco and usually sold in cans. The nicotine from the tobacco is absorbed through the mouth tissues as the user "chews."

Although chewing tobacco and snuff are considered smokeless tobacco products, harmful chemicals, including nicotine, are ingested. More than 25 cancer-causing chemicals have been found in smokeless tobacco.

Chewing tobacco and snuff can cause cancer in the mouth, cheek, tongue, and gums. Just as with a pipe, cancer often starts where the tobacco is held in the mouth. Cancer caused by chewing tobacco often starts as leukoplakia, which is a gray-white patch in the mouth or throat. Chewing tobacco is also linked to esophageal and pancreatic cancers.

How do cigarettes and cigars compare?

Many people think cigars are less harmful to their health. Many cigar smokers don't inhale. But their risk for mouth, throat, voice box, and esophageal cancers is much the same as it is for cigarette smokers. In fact:

  • Compared with nonsmokers, regular cigar smokers are 4 to 10 times more likely to die from mouth, esophageal, and laryngeal (voice box) cancer.

  • Cigar smokers may spend an hour or more smoking 1 cigar. One large cigar can contain the same amount of nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes.

  • Secondhand smoke from cigars contains toxins and cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), much like secondhand cigarette smoke.

How can I stop using tobacco products?

The American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association offer the following tips if you are trying to quit using tobacco products:

  • Think about why you want to quit.

  • Pick a quit day within the next month.

  • Ask for support and encouragement from family, friends, and coworkers.

  • Start doing some exercise or activity each day to relieve stress and improve your health.

  • Get plenty of rest and eat a well-balanced diet.

  • Join a stop-smoking program or other support group.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about medicines that may help you quit.

  • For help quitting tobacco, try these resources:

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2023
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