New study says nearly half of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking

Jun 18, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. ET

I once asked my now 86-year-old grandma how she managed to stay healthy despite her two-pack-a-day smoking habit. "Smoking isn't as bad as they make it out to be," she told me defiantly as she lit up another cigarette. And at the time it seemed like a plausible answer. Then she got sick — and continued to smoke.

She's still in (relatively) good health, but the truth is that it's luck that's kept her there.

A new study published in the latest issue of JAMA Internal Medicine found that of the 345,962 cancer deaths in the United States in 2011, 48.5 percent (167,805) were attributed to smoking.

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"Cigarette smoking continues to cause numerous deaths from multiple cancers despite half a century of decreasing prevalence," Rebecca Siegel from the American Cancer Society in Atlanta and her co-authors wrote in the study.

Most of the smoking deaths in people ages 35 and older predictably came from lung, bronchus and trachea cancers (125,799 of 156,855 deaths) and larynx cancer (2,856 of 3,728 deaths), though deaths from cancers of the bladder, esophagus, mouth, colon and cervix, among others, were also attributed to smoking.

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But quitting something as addictive as smoking isn't as simple as just using willpower. Many people need consistent intervention to help them along the path to quitting, but a study by Elyse Park from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that doctor-monitored smoking cessation programs don't work because there's no follow-up.

So alternatives like e-cigarettes and vaping are the way to go, right? Not necessarily: These methods haven't been around long enough to know what, if any, long-term health complications result from their consistent use. Many of the chemical ingredients in the "juices" are used in foods but are approved for eating, not inhaling.

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"Regulations are needed," researchers from Portland State University wrote in a recent study of vaping and e-cigarettes. "These should include compulsory ingredient listing, limiting the levels of certain flavorings, and limiting total permissible levels of flavorings, particularly as there is some concern that flavored products might make e-cigarettes more attractive to young people."

In short, purposely inhaling chemicals into your lungs isn't a good idea, no matter if it's through cigarettes or a metal tube.