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Smoking tobacco leads to over 1.3 million cancer deaths each year

A new study funded by Cancer Research UK has found that every year, 1.3 million lives are tragically lost to cancers caused by smoking tobacco in the UK, US, and BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). The research reveals that these seven countries collectively bear more than half of the global burden of annual cancer deaths. 

Preventable risk factors

The study, conducted by experts from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), and King’s College London, not only looked at smoking but also examined the impact of alcohol, overweight or obesity, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, concluding these four preventable risk factors are responsible for nearly two million deaths combined annually.

Focus of the study 

The researchers utilized a method focusing on the years of life lost to cancer, providing insights into the premature nature of these deaths. This perspective underscores the societal impact of cancer – for instance, a death at 60 results in more years of life lost compared to a death at 80. 

Critical insights

The study concluded that the four risk factors contribute to over 30 million years of life lost each year, with smoking tobacco having the most substantial impact, leading to 20.8 million years lost.

Globally, cancer is increasingly affecting low- and middle-income countries. Cancer Research UK’s analysis indicates a projected rise in new cancer cases by approximately 400 percent in low-income countries over the next 50 years, from 0.6 million to 3.1 million cases annually. In contrast, very-high-income countries like the UK are expected to see an increase of around 50 percent over the same period.

Global action is needed

Dr. Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, emphasized the importance of global action to prevent these cancers and highlighted the critical impact of tobacco control. 

“Smoking causes 150 cases of cancer in the UK every single day. Raising the age of sale in England is a critical step towards creating the first ever smoke free generation, and we call on MPs from all parties to support the legislation.”

Key findings

The research findings, published in the journal eClinicalMedicine, were derived from analyzing population attributable fractions of the four risk factors from previous global studies and applying these to 2020 cancer death estimates. 

The study highlighted various key findings, including the differing impact of preventable risk factors on cancer types across countries. For instance, in India, head and neck cancer in men and gynecological cancer in women were more prevalent due to inadequate cervical screening and different smoking habits, compared to other countries where tobacco smoking mainly led to lung cancer.

Gender disparities 

The study also revealed significant gender disparities in cancer deaths and years of life lost due to different risk factors. Men had higher rates of years lost to smoking and alcohol, while women were more impacted by overweight or obesity, and HPV infection. This was especially pronounced in South Africa and India, where HPV led to high rates of years of life lost with a significant gender imbalance.

Broader implications 

Dr. Judith Offman, Senior Lecturer in Cancer Prevention and Early Detection at Queen Mary University of London, who contributed to the study while at King’s College London, reflected on the findings: “Seeing how many years of life are lost to cancer due to these risk factors in countries around the world allows us to see what certain countries are doing well, and what isn’t working.”

She emphasized the crucial role of HPV vaccination and cervical screening in preventing cervical cancer, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where cervical cancer mortality rates are significantly higher than in the UK and US.

In response to these findings, Cancer Research UK is launching its Manifesto for Cancer Care and Research on November 28. This manifesto aims to transform cancer care and survival in the UK and assist other countries in saving more lives from cancer. It will offer a comprehensive blueprint of actionable policies for political parties to improve outcomes for cancer patients.

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