The many harms of tobacco smoking

Tobacco smoking is a leading cause of death and illness. In NSW, around 6,700 deaths in 2018 and more than 62,900 hospitalisations were attributed to smoking in 2018-19. Many people think that the only disease risk associated with smoking is lung cancer. This is far from the truth. Tobacco smoking harms almost every organ in the body. Wherever the blood flows the tobacco smoke goes too, causing damage.

It surprises some people to learn that while nicotine is the addictive substance in tobacco smoke it is not the main component responsible for the harmful health effects of smoking. This is the role of more than 7000 harmful chemicals present in tobacco smoke, 70 of which are known carcinogens, mutagens and toxins. These chemicals reach the brain, heart and other organs within 10 seconds of inhaling tobacco smoke and over time cause damage.

Smoking is a major risk factor for a variety of diseases and conditions including:

  • coronary heart disease: 10 times higher risk than non-smokers
  • stroke and peripheral vascular disease
  • lung cancer: 20 times higher risk than non-smokers
  • other cancers such as stomach, bladder, mouth and cervical cancer
  • emphysema
  • osteoporosis
  • type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Smoking during pregnancy increases a woman’s risk of miscarriage, premature birth and of having a low birth weight, sickly baby. Infants born to mothers who smoke are more likely to have health problems including respiratory infections, asthma, allergy and otitis media.

Research has also found that women may be more susceptible to smoking-related diseases than men.

The good news is that the damage done by tobacco smoking is reversible and changes start as soon as a smoker quits.More information is available on Benefits of quitting fact sheet.

Second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke (also called environmental tobacco smoke or passive smoke) is the combination of smoke emitted from the burning end of a cigarette or other tobacco product (side-stream smoke) and smoke exhaled by a smoker (mainstream smoke). Exposure to second-hand smoke causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke.

Some effects of second-hand smoke:

  • Infants exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems and more severe asthma.
  • Children exposed to second-hand experience a range of upper and lower respiratory illnesses and symptoms such as colds and flu, cough, phlegm production, wheezing and pneumonia. 
  • Exposure of adults to second-hand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and can cause coronary heart disease and lung cancer. Scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to second-hand smoke.
Current as at: Friday 2 October 2020
Contact page owner: Centre for Population Health