Myths About Tobacco Use

It has been nearly 50 years since the surgeon general’s report on smoking laid out the truth for the Average Joe about the dangers of smoking. Smoking rates have declined by about half since then, but despite ongoing education efforts, misconceptions about tobacco abound in the U.S.

As detailed in a recent story on, officials at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are trying to address the ignorance and misinformation in the hope of reducing the incidence of lung cancer, which is the leading preventable cause of death in this country.

According to MD Anderson, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with lung cancer every year; about 150,000 people die from the disease. Smoking contributes to almost 9 in 10 lung cancer deaths, and 3 in 10 of all cancer deaths.

The center has enumerated four tobacco myths:

No. 1: Almost no one smokes any more.

Fact: About 43.8 million people in the U.S. still smoke, or nearly 1 in 5. That’s better than the 4 in 10 who smoked when the surgeon general’s report was issued in 1964, but it’s still about the same actual number from that year. The population has grown, so it just seems like we have fewer smokers in the U.S.

No. 2: e-Cigarettes, cigars and hookahs are safe alternatives.

Fact: All tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and hookahs, have nicotine. They’re all harmful because nicotine is highly addictive. They may lack the carcinogenic chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes, but that doesn’t make them “safe.” (See our recent blog, “We Don’t Know Enough About Electronic Cigarettes.”)

Cigarette companies are heavily invested in advertising and marketing products such as e-cigarettes, flavored cigars and hookahs, and it’s not because they’re concerned about your health. Many marketing campaigns are directed to younger users because companies know that once someone is addicted to nicotine, he or she is more likely to sample other tobacco products.

E-cigs might be useful as stop-smoking strategy, but it’s too early to tell, and their lack of regulatory oversight is concerning.

No. 3: Infrequent, social smoking is harmless.

Fact: Even an occasional smoke is enough to sustain an addiction. Like a single drink that prompts an otherwise on-the-wagon alcoholic to return to the ravages of that addiction, data suggest that a single puff by a former smoker can send him or her back to the pack.

No. 4: Smoking outdoors eliminates the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Fact: No exposure to secondhand smoke is risk-free. Even a brief encounter with someone’s cigarette, cigar or tobacco pipe smoke can cause harm. According to MD Anderson, exposure to a family member’s or work colleague’s smoke raises someone’s risk of heart disease by 25% to 30%, and lung cancer by 20% to 30%. That’s because the content of cancer-causing chemicals in secondhand smoke is higher than in inhaled smoke.

The good news is that it’s never too late to reap health benefits if you quit smoking. For information on how, visit, a website sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

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