Study: Cigarettes are even more deadly than you think

About 480,000 Americans die each year as a result of smoking, the US surgeon general revealed. However, new analysis by researchers from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and other sources suggest that this figure is actually way bigger.

Twenty-one causes of death that have been officially blamed on smoking accounted for 83 percent of the actual deaths among smokers who were tracked in a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Additional diseases—including breast cancer, prostate cancer, hypertensive heart disease and renal failure—were responsible for most of the rest of the studied deaths. And a very small number of deaths were related to accidents and suicide, which have a more tenuous link to smoking.

Researchers from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and elsewhere combined data from five different ongoing health studies: the Nurses’ Health Study I, the Women’s Health Initiative, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, the Cancer Prevention Study II, and the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study.

The studies included 954,029 male and female smokers who were being tracked as of Jan. 1, 2000.

Over an 11-year study, 19 percent of the 88,616 smokers died, as did 23 percent of the 469,141 former smokers and 14.3 percent of the 396,272 people who had never smoked.

Smokers were more likely than nonsmokers to have died from one of the established smoking-related diseases, including most kinds of heart disease (stroke, chronic pulmonary disease, aneurysms), infections, diabetes, acute myeloid leukemia, and various lung, pancreas, kidney, and other organ cancers.

These diseases were responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths among men and women who were still smoking at the end of their lives, though not all of them.

Seventeen percent of deaths among female and 15 percent of deaths among male smokers were traced to other causes.

In nearly every study case, the diseases in this second group were more likely to kill current smokers than nonsmokers. For instance, female smokers were 30 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their non-smoking counterparts; male smokers were 40 percent more likely to be killed of prostate cancer than non-smokers. In addition, hypertensive heart disease and some kinds of respiratory diseases were also more likely to kill smokers.

In other words, the risk of death can be up to twice as high for various ailments for those who continually puff at cigarettes. The more packs a person has smoked per day, the greater his or her risk of dying from infections, breast cancer, heart disease, or kidney failure.

Among those who quit, the longer it had been since the last cigarette, the lower the risk of death, according to the report.

Smokers are generally more susceptible because of biological mechanisms depending on the disease. In the case of infections, for example, cigarette smoke is known to hinder immune function. Smoking is also known to reduce blood flow to the intestines, potentially explaining the link to intestinal and digestive diseases.

Researchers’ ability to generalize the findings to the whole country were limited because most of the participants were more likely to be white and highly educated.

“Our results suggest that the number of persons in the US who die each year as a result of smoking cigarettes may be substantially greater than currently estimated,” study authors wrote. That death toll number could be well over 575,000.

(With reports from Los Angeles Times)

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