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What Are the Risks of Smoking Vs. Nonsmoking?

By Nancy Clarke ; Updated August 14, 2017

The act of smoking cigarettes sends carbon monoxide, tar, nicotine and many other harmful substances into the body. Ingesting these materials on a regular basis changes the balance of blood oxygen levels and additional aspects of metabolism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46 percent of nonsmokers experience some degree of adverse effects from exposure to secondhand smoke. Obviously, the risk for health problems from tobacco use itself is much greater than from secondhand exposure.

Nicotine Dependence

The greatest contrast between smoking and nonsmoking is that most smokers become addicted to nicotine, and most nonsmokers do not. Being dependent on tobacco use is physically and mentally compelling, driving smokers’ motivations and actions in many aspects of everyday life. Most smokers wish to stop smoking cigarettes, reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but nine out of 10 are literally unable to do so.

Respiratory Damage

Health problems for habitual smokers begin with harm to the respiratory system from inhaling heated plant materials. The American Lung Association relates that smoking damages the cilia, or airway “filters,” and eventually the alveoli, or air sacs in the lungs. Compared to nonsmokers’ healthy lungs, the compromised respiratory systems of smokers place them at greater than normal risk for pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma aggravation and emphysema.

Cardiovascular Health Problems

Smoking cigarettes raises heart rate and reduces circulation. The American Heart Association lists the risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease and aneurysm as higher in smoking vs. nonsmoking adults. The CDC reports that secondhand smoke raises nonsmokers’ risks for coronary heart disease as well.


First- and secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer, but the CDC notes that an active smokers’ greater risk climbs with each year and each cigarette smoked. The average tobacco user’s risk for contracting lung cancer, for instance, is as much as 20 times that of the nonsmoking public.

The CDC also links smoking cigarettes to a greater risk for other types of cancer, including leukemia and cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix and uterus.

Dental Problems

The U.S. Surgeon General revealed in 2004 that the risk for periodontitis health problems is higher for smokers than for nonsmokers. Periodontitis is a serious gum disease that can result in tooth loss and increases a smoker’s already higher risk for heart disease.

Impaired Vision

In the same 2004 report, the surgeon general noted that cigarette smoking causes cataracts and that tobacco users may be at elevated risk for age-related macular degeneration. These eye disorders impair vision and can lead to blindness.

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