The Risk of Lung Cancer in Smokers and Non-Smokers

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that cigarette smoking causes 90% of lung cancers, and smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get or die from lung cancer. The relative risk seems insanely high, so I decided to research what the risk for getting lung cancer is for a non-smoker.


The American Cancer Society states that 16,000-24,000 "never smoker" Americans die of lung cancer each year. They define a "never smoker" as someone who has smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. It seems interesting that you could smoke 99 cigarettes and still be put in the same category as someone who has never touched one. This seems to be an inherent flaw in the research already, but may have a slight bias in order to try and convince people to quit or never start smoking. Either way, these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt.


The important thing is, if there were a separate category for lung cancer in "non-smokers" (notice the quotations), it would be in the top 10 deadliest cancers in the US. The leading causes of lung cancer in non-smokers are secondhand smoke, gas and carcinogen exposure as well as air pollution. Looking at the numbers, it is interesting to note that the American Cancer Society estimates 3,400 people die per year from secondhand smoke. I stated above that they also said 16,000 to 24,000 non-smokers die per year from lung cancer. What accounts for the other tens of thousands of deaths?


The answer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is radon gas exposure. An estimated 20,000 people per year die in the US from lung cancer caused by radon gas exposure in the workplace or elsewhere. The reason I am giving you these statistics is for perspective. According to an article from, "fewer than 10 percent of lifelong smokers will get lung cancer", and you apparently are "more likely to have a condom break than get cancer from smoking".


You have to look at the facts objectively or else they can become extremely ambiguous. As you cans see, the statistics I gave in the first part of this blog would make you wonder why anybody would ever pick up a cigarette in the first place. The information from this article attempts to explain the different risks and percentages that get thrown around in the cigarette danger conversation. It is important to note that if the CDC or the American Cancer Society posted the stats on how many smokers beat lung cancer and survived, it wouldn't make for a very good anti-smoking platform.


The problem with trying to research hard data on topics like this is the amount of bias and statistical manipulation that goes on. It really does feel like walking in circles, with one pro-smoking website giving one number and an anti-smoking website giving the inverse of that. This just furthers the importance of learning the skills like we have in class so that we can become more educated in how to see through the smoke and mirrors and identify the true facts.  I am curious if anybody else can find a true, unbiased number of deaths occurring from lung cancer in smokers and non smokers. 

1 Comment

This is a very good blog post as it puts this controversial topic into perspective. Many people, including myself, think that picking up one cigarette is the same thing as signing up for a life sentence. That isn't the case though as you have illustrated. I know a few people that have had lung cancer that were smokers and they always seem to blame it on smoking. This leads me to have a bias towards this subject. Im sure I'm not the only person because many people probably know someone that has had lung cancer and so a lot of people become bias towards the subject as well. In this data driven world we live in today people can find so much data that they can pick and choose the data they like and forget the ones that they don't so that our views become distorted.

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