The Connection Between Smoking Tobacco, COPD, Lung Cancer, and Tobacco-Related Deaths

November is the awareness month for both lung cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)–two life-threatening health conditions that can make breathing difficult by compromising the integrity of the lungs. The lungs are important organs in the human body. They transfer oxygen into the bloodstream, supplying oxygen to your entire body. Without your lungs, you won’t continue breathing for very long, and other life-supporting systems would begin shutting down within minutes.

Being such vital parts of the body, you would think people would take extreme caution when using a substance that can harm the lungs. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. One primary driver of both COPD and lung cancer is smoking tobacco.

Smoking Tobacco and COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term that refers to a group of respiratory diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma.[1] People who have COPD aren’t able to get as much airflow through their airways due to airflow blockages, obstructions, and other breathing-related problems.

Early cases of COPD may be asymptomatic, or they may be marked by mild symptoms such as a smoker’s cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. However, as the disease progresses, people develop symptoms like rapid heartbeat, blue or grey lips or fingernails, swelling in the feet and ankles, and difficulty catching their breath. In the long term, COPD can lead to a variety of cardiovascular and lung diseases.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and is responsible for nearly 80% of all COPD-related deaths.[1,2] This is because smoking causes damage to the air sacs, airways, and lining of the lungs, making it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. Even secondhand smoke, particularly during childhood and teenage years, can increase the risk of COPD.[3]

COPD is thought to cause more than 150,000 deaths each year in the United States. The best way to prevent COPD is to not start smoking in the first place and to stop smoking as soon as possible if you are already a smoker.

Smoking Tobacco and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a form of cancer that begins in the lungs but can metastasize and spread to other areas of the body. There are two primary types of lung cancers: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The vast majority of lung cancers are NSCLC. NSCLC is the type of lung cancer that commonly occurs in people who used to smoke or currently smoke. SCLC, on the other hand, can also be caused by smoking, but it is less common. However, SCLC grows and spreads faster than NSCLC, and may be more difficult to treat.[4]

Smoking cigarettes is the number one risk factor for developing both types of lung cancer. According to the CDC, between 80% and 90% of lung cancer deaths are linked to cigarette smoking, and people who smoke cigarettes are 15-30 times more likely to get and die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. Other smoking tobacco products, such as pipes or cigars, can also increase the risk of lung cancer. This is because there are more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke–many of which are toxic and cancer-causing.[5]

Approximately 131,880 Americans die from lung cancer each year.

The Death Toll of Tobacco Use

When people think of substance abuse deaths, they often think of heroin overdose deaths, alcohol poisoning, or cardiac events. Although these events are responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives each year, tobacco kills more people than any addictive substance out there. Health conditions like COPD, lung cancer, and other cancers caused by smoking are life-threatening.

According to Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco kills more than 480,000 people each year. This means tobacco kills more people than alcohol, illegal drugs, car accidents, murders, and AIDS combined.[6] Up to 41,000 of these deaths are thought to be caused by secondhand smoke exposure rather than a person’s own, independent tobacco use. When you break these numbers down, tobacco is responsible for nearly 1,300 deaths each day.[7]

This not only devastates the lives of family and friends who lose loved ones too soon to tobacco-related causes, but it also places a huge economic burden on the United States. Tobacco costs the country more than $225 million in health care expenses and more than $180 billion in lost productivity each year.[6]

Overall, tobacco is responsible for more than 7 million deaths worldwide each and every year and smokers die, on average, 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.[7]

Quit Smoking to Keep Your Lungs Healthy

Lung-related illnesses are dangerous and deadly. If you want to keep your lungs healthy, the best way to do so is to not start smoking in the first place and to avoid environments where you may be exposed to secondhand smoke. If you are already a smoker, the next best way to keep your lungs healthy is to stop smoking immediately. The sooner you stop smoking, the faster you will reduce your risk of COPD, lung cancer, heart disease, and more.


  • After just 9 months of quitting smoking, your lungs will have begun to heal themselves.
  • After one year, your risk for heart disease increases by 50%.
  • After 10 years your risk of developing lung cancer and dying from it is cut in half compared to a smoker.
  • After 20 years the risk of dying from all smoke-related causes returns to the same risk level of a person who has never smoked in their lifetime.[8]

Even though giving up your go-to habit of smoking cigarettes may be difficult, it is well worth the journey. Each day you spend without a cigarette allows your body to heal itself, and with every year that goes by, you decrease your risk of tobacco-related illnesses. You’ll feel better, breathe better, and live better when you stop.





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