Feature Archive

10 Persistent Myths About Smoking

Have you bought into these smoking myths? Experts set the record straight.

By David Freeman
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Smoking in America is down -- but not out. Today, 20% of U.S. adults are smokers, compared to 45% in 1965, when smoking was at its peak. But even at the current level of tobacco use, an estimated 440,000 Americans per year lose their lives to lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, or other smoking-related illnesses. On average, smokers die 14 years before nonsmokers, and half of all smokers who don't quit are killed by their habit.

People start smoking for many reasons. Many continue to puff away because they buy into certain persistent myths about tobacco use. Here are 10 of those myths, and the truth about each.

Myth: My other healthy habits may make up for my smoking.

Some smokers justify their habit by insisting that proper nutrition and lots of exercise are enough to keep them healthy. Not so.

"Research shows that eating a healthy diet and exercising don't reduce the health risks associated with smoking," says Ann M. Malarcher, PhD, senior scientific advisor in the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "Smoking affects every organ system in the body, and thinking that you're going to find the perfect lifestyle to counteract the effects of smoking is just not realistic."

"You could take a truckload of vitamins a day and still not undo the deadly effects of tobacco," says Michael C. Fiore, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

Myth: Switching to 'light' cigarettes will cut my risk.

Smokers who switch to brands labeled "light" or "mild" inevitably compensate for the lower levels of tar and nicotine by inhaling smoke more deeply or by smoking more of each cigarette.

"Most people who smoke them wind up getting the same amount of the killing components in tobacco smoke," Fiore tells WebMD. "People who smoke light cigarettes are dying of lung cancer, stroke, heart attack, and emphysema every day."

Similarly, cigarettes labeled "natural" or "organic" are no safer than ordinary cigarettes. "You don't need to add anything to tobacco for it to kill you," Fiore says.

Myth: I've smoked for so long; the damage is already done.

The damage caused by smoking is cumulative, and the longer a person smokes, the greater his/her risk for life-threatening ailments. But quitting smoking at any age brings health benefits.

"Your health will improve even if you quit at 70," says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.

The benefits of quitting start the day you stop. "Within a month, you will feel like you have more air, because you do," Fiore says. "Within a year, your risk of having a heart attack will be cut by 50%."

According to the American Cancer Society, smokers who quit before age 35 prevent 90% of the risk of health problems from smoking. A smoker who quits before age 50 halves his/her risk of dying within the next 15 years compared to someone who continues to smoke.

Myth: Trying to quit smoking will stress me out -- and that's unhealthy.

True, tobacco withdrawal is stressful. But there's no evidence that the stress has negative long-term effects.

In fact, research shows that smokers who quit begin eating better, exercising more, and feeling better about themselves. "They're in a better mental place," Fiore says. "So many smokers today hate the fact that they are addicted, and that they are taking money out of the family budget and putting it toward deadly cigarettes."

On average, a pack-a-day smoking habit costs $2,000 a year, Edelman says.

Myth: The weight gain that comes with quitting is just as unhealthy as smoking.

Smokers who quit gain an average of 14 pounds, Malarcher says. But the risk posed by carrying the extra pounds "is miniscule compared to the risk of continuing to smoke," Fiore says.

Myth: Quitting "cold turkey" is the only way to go.