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Risks of tobacco

Tobacco is a plant. Its leaves are smoked, chewed, or sniffed for a variety of effects.

  • Tobacco is an addictive substance because it contains the chemical nicotine.
  • Tobacco contains more than 19 known cancer-causing chemicals (most are called "tar.")


There are many more reasons to quit using tobacco. Knowing the serious health risks may help motivate you to quit. When used over a long period, tobacco and related chemicals, such as tar and nicotine, can increase your risk of many health problems.

Heart and blood vessel problems:

  • Blood clots and aneurysms in the brain, which can lead to stroke
  • Blood clots in the legs, which may travel to the lungs
  • Coronary artery disease, including angina and heart attacks
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor blood supply to the legs
  • Problems with erections because of decreased blood flow into the penis

Other health risks or problems:

  • Cancer (especially in the lung, mouth, larynx, esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, and cervix)
  • Poor wound healing, especially after surgery
  • Lung problems, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or asthma that is harder to control.
  • Problems during pregnancy, such as babies born at low birth weight, premature labor, miscarriage, and cleft lip.
  • Decreased ability to taste and smell
  • Harm to sperm, which contributes to infertility
  • Loss of sight due to an increased risk of macular degeneration
  • Tooth and gum diseases
  • Wrinkling of the skin

Smokers who switch to smokeless tobacco instead of quitting tobacco completely still have a number of health risks:

  • Increased risk of mouth or nasal cancer
  • Gum problems, tooth wear, and cavities
  • Worsening high blood pressure and angina


Those who are regularly around the smoke of others (secondhand smoke) have a higher risk of:

  • Heart attack and heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Sudden and severe reactions, including those involving the eye, nose, throat, and lower respiratory tract

Infants and children who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of:

  • Asthma (children with asthma who live with a smoker are much more likely to visit the emergency room)
  • Infections, including virus-caused upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and pneumonia
  • Lung damage (poor lung function)
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Like any addiction, quitting tobacco is difficult, especially if you are acting alone. There are a lot of ways to quit smoking and many resources to help you.

Alternative Names

Secondhand smoke - risks; Cigarette smoking - risks; Smoking and smokeless tobacco - risks


Boffetta P, Straif K. Use of smokeless tobacco and risk of myocardial infarction and stroke: systematic review with meta-analysis. BMJ. 2009;339:b3060. PMID 19690343. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19690343

George TP. Nicotine and tobacco. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 31.

Stead LF, Perera R, Bullen C, Mant D, Hartmann-Boyce J, Cahill K, Lancaster T. Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;11:CD000146. PMID 23152200. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23152200

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Counseling and interventions to prevent tobacco use and tobacco-caused disease in adults and pregnant women. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmation recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. 2009;150:551-555. PMID 19380855. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19380855

Update Date 11/2/2014

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