Tobacco is the only legal drug that kills millions when used exactly as intended by manufacturers. New research into the root causes of cancer demonstrates how tobacco smoke mutates DNA, and gives rise to more than 17 types of cancers, and surprisingly, causes cancers in organs not directly exposed to tobacco smoke.
Cell mutation and the body’s natural resistance
A mutation occurs when a DNA gene is damaged or changed in such a way as to alter the genetic message carried by that gene. The more mutations a cell acquires, the more likely it is to turn cancerous.
Decreased prevalence, but increased incidence of smoking
Globally, smoking prevalence - the percentage of the population that smokes regularly - has decreased, but the number of cigarette smokers worldwide has increased due to population growth. Today, over 1bn people worldwide smoke tobacco, which each year causes nearly 6m early deaths, many different cancers, pain, misery and grief; not to mention the huge costs to healthcare systems and the loss of productivity. If current trends continue tobacco use will cause more than 8m deaths annually by 2030. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.
Cancer and the body’s natural resistance
Cancer is a condition where cells in a specific part of the body mutate and reproduce uncontrollably. There are over 200 different types of cancer. Cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue and organs. Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body before spreading to other areas. This process is known a metastasis. The body has a capacity to naturally resist cancer, through tumor suppressor genes, which function to restrain inappropriate mutations, and stimulate cell death to keep our cells in proper balance.New therapies that boost the body’s own immune system to fight cancer are believed to be a game-changer in cancer treatment.
Whitfield Growdon, a surgical oncologists from Harvard University Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, describes cancer and the causes of cancer:
Cancer and the causes of cancer
What is cancer?
What causes cancer?
Epidemiology of smoking
Today, it is widely accepted that tobacco use is the single most important preventable health risk in the developed world, and an important cause of premature death worldwide. The research of the British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Tony Bradford Hill, more than anyone else, is responsible for the link between tobacco use and lung cancer. Following reports of several case-controlled studies in the early 1950’s Doll and Hill published findings of a larger case-controlled study in 1954 in the British Medical Journal, which suggested that smoking was, "a cause, and an important cause" of lung cancer. This was followed by the publication of further research findings in 1956. Doll and Hill’s latter study confirmed their earlier case-controlled findings: that there is a higher mortality rate among smokers than in non-smokers, and a clear dose-response relationship between the quantity of tobacco used, and the death rate from lung cancer. Data also indicated a significant progressive reduction in mortality rates with the length of time following the cessation of smoking.
US Surgeon General Report of smoking and lung cancer
The research of Doll and Hill, along with other cohort studies published in the 1950s, formed the basis for the game-changing 1964 report of the US Surgeon General, which concluded that, "Cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in men; the magnitude of the effect of cigarette smoking far outweighs all other factors". This led to groundbreaking research on tobacco use, and investments by governments and nonprofit organizations to reduce tobacco prevalence and cigarette consumption, which in some developed countries has been successful. In 2003, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was adopted by the World Health Organization, and has since been ratified by 180 countries.
The best and the worst countries for smoking related lung cancer
Between 1980 and 2012 age-standardized smoking prevalence decreased by 42% for women and 25% for men worldwide. Canada, Iceland, Mexico, and Norway have reduced smoking by more than half in both men and women since 1980. The greatest health risks for both men and women are likely to occur in countries where smoking is pervasive and where smokers consume a large quantity of cigarettes. These countries include China, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, South Korea, the Philippines, Uruguay, Switzerland, and several countries in Eastern Europe. The number of cigarettes smoked worldwide has grown to more than 6 trillion. In 75 countries: smokers consume an average of more than 20 cigarettes a day.
Smoking-related deaths in the UK and US
19% (10m) of adults in the UK, and 17% (40m), of adults in the US are current cigarette smokers, a figure, which has more than halved since the mid 1970s. Results from a 50-year study shows that half to two thirds of all lifelong cigarette smokers will be eventually killed by their habit. Death is usually due to lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease and coronary heart disease. Many who suffer from these diseases experience years of ill health and subsequent loss of productivity. Every year, around 96,000 people in the UK, and 480,000 people in the US, die from diseases caused by smoking. This equates to 226 and 1,300 smoking-related deaths every day in the UK and US respectively.
In addition to death and sickness, tobacco use also imposes a significant economic burden on society. These include direct medical costs of treating tobacco-induced illnesses, indirect costs including loss of productivity, fire damage and environmental harm from cigarette litter and destructive farming practices. Cigarettes sales contribute significant tax revenues to national coffers; the industry employs tens of thousands of people who also pay taxes. Notwithstanding, the total burden caused by tobacco products outweighs any economic benefit from their manufacture and sale.
Direct link between the number of cigarettes smoked and cancers
Scientists from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, UK, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and others have discovered a direct link between the number of cigarettes smoked and the number of mutations in the tumor DNA, and that smoking also causes cancers in organs not exposed to tobacco smoke.
Research published in the Journal Science in 2016 analyzed more than 5,000 cancer tumors from smokers and nonsmokers, and concluded that if you smoke even a few cigarettes a day you will erode the genetic material of most of the cells in your body, and thereby be at a significantly greater risk of cancer. "Before now, we had a large body of epidemiological evidence linking smoking with cancer, but now we can actually observe and quantify the molecular changes in the DNA due to cigarette smoking," says Ludmil Alexandrov, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Labroratory and an author of the study.
The discovery means that people who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day for a year, develop on average, 150 extra mutations in every lung cell, and nearly 100 more mutations than usual in each cell of the voice box, 39 mutations for the pharynx, 23 mutations for mouth, 18 mutations for bladder, and 6 mutations in every cell of the liver.
Smoking causes cancers not exposed to smoke
Scientists were surprised to find that tobacco smoke caused mutations in tissues that are not directly exposed to smoke. While more than 70 of the 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke have long been known to raise the risk of at least 17 forms of cancer, the precise molecular mechanisms through which these chemicals mutate DNA, and give rise to tumours in different tissues have never been altogether clear, until now. The study showed that some chemicals from tobacco smoke damage DNA directly, but others found their way to different organs and tissues, and ramp up the natural speed at which mutations built up in the tissues in more subtle ways, often by disrupting the way cells function. The more mutations a cell acquires, the more likely it is to turn cancerous.
Why some smokers get cancer and others do not
“It won’t happen to me. . . . My grandfather started smoking when he was 11, smoked 20 a day, and lived ‘til he was 90”. We have all heard this before. But we now know why some smokers get cancer and others do not. it is because of the way mutations arise. When a person smokes, the chemicals they inhale create mutations at random points in the genome. Many of these changes will be harmless, but others will not be so benign. The more smoke a person is exposed to, the greater the chance that the accumulating mutations will hit specific spots in the DNA that turn cells cancerous. Even decades after people stop smoking, former smokers are at a long-term increased risk of developing cancers.“You can really think of it as playing Russian roulette,” says Alexandrov.
Until now, it has not been fully understood how smoking increases the risk of developing cancer in parts of the body that do not come into direct contact with smoke.
Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, says that the findings from the research described above: “will feed into knowledge, methods and practice in patient care.” Dr Peter Campbell, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute says: “The knowledge we extract over the next few years will have major implications for treatment. By identifying all the cancer genes we will be able to develop new drugs that target the specific mutated genes, and work out which patients will benefit from these novel treatments.”