Tobacco Myths Persist 50 Years After the US Surgeon General First Warned Americans of the Dangers of Smoking

MD Anderson experts debunk myths, share new facts and resources to address this persistent health issue

MD Anderson News Release 11/07/13

Tobacco misconceptions prevail in the United States despite the dramatic drop in smoking rates since the release of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health in January 1964. Experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center dispel common myths and share new educational resources to address this persistent challenge.

“Since 1964, smoking rates have dropped by more than half as a result of successful education, legislative and smoking cessation efforts,” said Lewis Foxhall, M.D., vice president for health policy at MD Anderson. 

“Still, lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer and the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”

With the approaching 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s Report, Foxhall and other MD Anderson experts urge the public to take a proactive stance against this pervasive health issue by gaining insight on current tobacco issues including information that disproves the following myths.

Tobacco Myth #1: Almost no one smokes any more.
About 43.8 million people still smoke. That’s almost one in five people in the United States. 

“The current percentage of smokers is 19%. That’s significantly lower than the 42% in 1965,” Foxhall said. “However, the actual number of people smoking today is close to the same.”

About 50 million people smoked in 1965. “Because our population is much larger, it just seems like we have a lot fewer smokers,” Foxhall explained.

“We have a lot of work ahead to prevent new smokers and help existing smokers quit,” said Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., professor and chair of behavioral science at MD Anderson. 

“Thanks to programs like the American Legacy Foundation’s truth national anti-smoking campaign, we have been able to achieve fewer youths smoking,” Gritz said, a previous vice chair on the Legacy board. “But funding for these campaigns is limited and unable to compete with the exorbitant and seemingly unlimited advertising dollars spent by tobacco companies.”  


Tobacco Myth #2: e-Cigarettes, cigars and hookahs are safe alternatives.
All tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and hookahs, have nicotine. And it’s nicotine’s highly addictive properties that make these products harmful.

In 2008, the five largest cigarette companies spent $9.94 billion dollars on advertising and marketing products like e-cigarettes, flavored cigars, cigarillos and hookahs.

“The tobacco industry comes up with these new products to recruit new, younger smokers,” said Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program at MD Anderson. “And, they advertise them as less harmful than conventional cigarettes. But once a young person gets acquainted with nicotine, it’s more likely he or she will try other tobacco products.”

“While e-cigarettes may contain less harmful substances than combustible tobacco, they’re presently unregulated so quality control over the nicotine content and other components is left to the manufacturer,” said Paul Cinciripini, Ph.D., professor and deputy chair of behavioral science and director of the Tobacco Treatment Program at MD Anderson.

“At this time, it’s far too early to tell whether or not e-cigarettes can be used effectively as a smoking cessation device,” Cinciripini said.

Tobacco Myth #3: Infrequent, social smoking is harmless.
Any smoking, even social smoking, is dangerous.

“Science has not identified a safe level of smoking, and even a few cigarettes here and there can maintain addiction,” said David Wetter, Ph.D., chair of health disparities research at MD Anderson. “If you are a former smoker, data suggests that having just a single puff can send you back to smoking.”

Tobacco Myth #4: Smoking outside eliminates the dangers of secondhand smoke
There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Even brief secondhand smoke exposure can cause harm.

Exposure to secondhand smoke at home or work increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 25 to 30% and lung cancer by 20 to 30%. That’s because the amount of cancer-causing chemicals is higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.

Families that prohibit smoking in and around the home are on the right path, said Wetter.

Stay informed and take action

“Being educated and sharing this knowledge with others are ways to action,” said Ernest Hawk, M.D., vice president of cancer prevention and population sciences at MD Anderson. “For smokers, it’s never too late to quit smoking and reap health benefits.”

As part of MD Anderson’s Moon Shot program to end cancer, Hawk and other experts have developed a comprehensive plan that addresses the burden of tobacco use in institutions, communities, states and nations.

“The End Tobacco plan recommends more than 100 actions in the areas of policy, education and community-based services that MD Anderson can lead to end tobacco at the institutional, local, regional, state national and international levels,” Hawk said. “As a leader in the field of tobacco research, it’s vital we take a leadership role to confront the use of tobacco in any form.”

More than 200,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year in the United States and about 150,000 people die as a result of this disease. Smoking contributes to almost 90% of lung cancer deaths and 30% of all cancer deaths.