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Risk factor: Tobacco

Tobacco is the fourth most common risk factor for disease, and the second major cause of death in the world. Without urgent action, tobacco use is projected to cause 450 million deaths worldwide in the next 50 years.

Tobacco is the fourth most common risk factor for disease, and the second major cause of death in the world, currently killing one in ten adults worldwide. Imported from the ‘New World’ in the 15th century, tobacco was thought to have medicinal properties; it was not until after the Second World War that the dangers of tobacco were noted, by which time smoking had become a mass habit.


When smoked, common tobacco, or ‘nicotiana tabacum’, releases nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide into the lungs. Nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure, and is the addictive element of tobacco; smokers crave nicotine despite knowing its detrimental effects. In higher doses nicotine is highly poisonous and commonly used as an insecticide. Tar is formed when tobacco smoke condenses and is deposited into the lungs; after a year a 20-a-day smoker will have 150mls of tar in their lungs. Adding to tobacco’s toxicity, carbon monoxide binds to haemoglobin, preventing the flow of oxygen around the body. 

There are 43 known carcinogens in tobacco smoke, and an estimated 4,000 chemicals including arsenic, lead, formaldehyde, ammonia and butane.


Smoking causes throat cancer, heart attacks, raised blood pressure, lung cancer, respiratory disease, infertility and peptic ulcers. On average, adult smokers will die 13-14 years earlier than non-smokers; a 20-a-day smoker is losing one day of life for every week of smoking. Tobacco use is projected to be the cause of nearly 450 million deaths worldwide during the next 50 years.

More deaths are caused every year by tobacco than from HIV, drug and alcohol abuse, motor accidents, suicides and murder combined.

If current trends continue, smoking will cause 10 million deaths per year by 2020. Half the people that smoke today – 650 million people worldwide – will eventually be killed by tobacco, 80% of whom will be in the developing world.

Adult smoking graph for Smoking info

Source: World Tobacco Atlas 2002