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Although smoking has not been directly connected to mesothelioma, it might play a role in people exposed to asbestos. Smoking contributes to lung cancer and also worsens symptoms of asbestos-related mesothelioma. Quitting smoking is one of the best things anyone can do for their health, with or without asbestos exposure.
How Do Smoking and Asbestos Affect Health?
Nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are related to smoking. This makes smoking the biggest cause of preventable deaths. Asbestos exposure is closely tied to a deadly type of cancer called mesothelioma as well as lung cancer. Both smoking and asbestos exposure negatively impact health, together and separately.
How Smoking Affects Health
According to the National Cancer Institute, smoking has an overall negative impact on human health and affects nearly every organ in the body. Smoking is the leading cause of several cancers, including lung, esophageal, kidney, throat, mouth, and bladder cancers. It is also the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.
Smoking contributes to and causes:
- Heart disease
- Macular degeneration
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema)
Smoking worsens asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections. It also increases a person’s risk of developing them.
Smoking also makes it more difficult to conceive; however, after conception, smoking during pregnancy increases the risks of birth defects, miscarriages, premature babies, and low birth weight.
Secondhand smoke also negatively affects the health of non-smokers as it causes lung cancer and increases the risks of heart disease and stroke. For children with parents who smoke, there is an increased risk of infections and asthma.
The Health Effects of Asbestos
Asbestos is a natural mineral that was used extensively in several industries, especially construction. Exposure to asbestos occurs when the small fibers break loose and are inhaled or ingested.
Asbestos fibers in the body can cause tissue damage that leads to mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural plaques, or pleural thickening. Asbestos is mostly associated with respiratory conditions that decrease quality of life and life expectancy.
Asbestos in Cigarettes
Every inhalation of a cigarette introduces thousands of toxins into the lungs. Once inhaled, these toxins enter the circulatory system and lymphatic system and spread throughout the body.
Dried tobacco leaves are the main ingredient in cigarettes. Dried tobacco contains nicotine which is a psychoactive compound. Nicotine makes smoking so addictive and is one of the most harmful compounds in cigarette smoke.
Cigarettes also include additives for flavor, smell, and what marketers call smoothness. This complicated mixture of chemicals is toxic.
Cigarette smoke contains harmful substances like formaldehyde, ammonia, lead, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, benzene, and even radioactive substances, like uranium and radon. These radioactive materials come from the soil used to grow tobacco.
Cigarettes even contained asbestos in the filters in one case. The company, Kent, had these cigarettes in circulation from 1952 to 1956. Cigarette companies marketed filters as making smoking safer, trapping harmful toxins before they entered the lungs. This claim was later proven false.
The Micronite filter developed for Kent cigarettes caused smokers to inhale an average of 170,000 particles of asbestos with two tiny puffs.
Does Smoking Cause Mesothelioma?
Exposure to asbestos through any source can cause mesothelioma. Cigarettes don’t typically contain asbestos, but Kent was an exception.
Anyone who smoked Kent cigarettes when it used asbestos in its filters was unknowingly exposed to asbestos. As a result, they could have later developed mesothelioma.
While there is no evidence that smoking itself contributes to mesothelioma, it is known that smoking worsens outcomes for cancer patients. Someone who continues to smoke after a cancer diagnosis is likely to die earlier than someone who quits.
Research suggests that cancer patients who quit at the time of diagnosis reduce the risk of dying of cancer by up to 40%. Quitting also lowers the risks of respiratory infections and recurrence if the cancer goes into remission.
Asbestos Lung Cancer and Smoking
While there is no direct connection between mesothelioma and smoking, there is a definite and strong connection between smoking and lung cancer, including lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Both asbestos and smoking, separately, can cause lung cancer, but together the effect is worse. Someone who smokes and is exposed to asbestos is at an increased risk of developing lung cancer compared to someone who experiences one or the other, but not both.
One study found that people who both smoke and have asbestos exposure are anywhere from thirty to fifty times more likely to develop lung cancer when compared to smokers who avoid asbestos exposure.
Another study found that among smokers who were exposed to asbestos, those with asbestosis (also caused by asbestos exposure) were more likely to develop lung cancer. This was in comparison to similar workers who had asbestosis but did not smoke.
Smoking and Other Asbestos-Related Illnesses
Despite whether or not smoking contributes to mesothelioma, there is plenty of evidence that smoking harms lung tissue. This tissue damage could increase a person’s potential for being harmed by asbestos.
Smoking weakens the lungs, making them more susceptible to damage from asbestos fibers. Smoking also decreases overall health, which could make a person more vulnerable to damage from asbestos.
Asbestosis is scarring of lung tissue because of damage caused by asbestos. Unlike mesothelioma or lung cancer, asbestosis is not malignant; however, it is progressive. The scarring, or fibrosis, gets worse over time, making breathing increasingly difficult.
Whether smoking increases the risk for asbestosis is not clear. One study suggests there may be a connection. Researchers found that among asbestos-exposed workers, those who smoked retained more asbestos fibers in their lungs.
Vaping and Lung Disease
E-cigarettes were introduced to help people quit smoking but now present a new health threat. Many people vape for pleasure rather than as a tool for quitting. Touted as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes are not entirely safe.
Vape pens and e-cigarettes are not known to contain asbestos, but they do include a harmful mixture of chemicals. These include nicotine, which as in cigarettes, is highly addictive. Other substances found in e-cigarettes include:
- Ultrafine particles
- Propylene glycol
- Diethylene glycol
Some of these substances are known carcinogens, meaning they cause cancer. Some are heavy metals, and one is an herbicide.
Lung cancer has not yet been connected to vaping, but the latest research indicates that it might be too soon to say. It could be many more years before researchers are able to determine if vaping and e-cigarettes contribute to or cause cancer.
Experts believe it is possible that e-cigarettes could cause lung cancer. Some studies have shown that compounds in e-cigarettes show toxic activities in cells, which could ultimately lead to cancer.
The Benefits of Quitting Smoking
When you quit smoking, there are immediate and long-term benefits:
- Quitting lowers blood pressure and heart rate, reduces carbon monoxide in the blood, and improves circulation.
- Once you quit smoking, you will also experience a reduction in coughing, phlegm production, and a heightened sense of smell and taste.
- Lung function begins to improve within a month or two of quitting.
- Quitting reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, just to name a few.
- Quitters are less likely to die from a disease related to smoking, especially those who quit before the age of forty.
- It’s never too late, though. Regardless of age, people who quit will see a significant increase in life expectancy.
For someone with an asbestos-related illness like mesothelioma, there are even more benefits to quitting smoking. Smoking exacerbates all symptoms of lung disease, so quitting will ease symptoms and allow you to breathe easier.
Tools for Quitting
There are many reasons to quit smoking. People keep smoking despite the health risks because it is tough to quit. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance and changes pathways in the brain, making it almost impossible to quit without assistance.
If you want to stop smoking, talk to your doctor about medical treatment options. There are plenty of tools available to help you quit.
Some people find transitioning to an e-cigarette helps wean them from nicotine. The jury is still out on the safety of these devices and will require more research; however, they do not produce smoke like cigarettes.
There are also medications and nicotine replacements that can help you quit. These are available both over the counter and by a doctor’s prescription. There are also apps and support groups for smokers looking to quit. Some people turn to hypnosis for help.
Can Smokers Get Compensation for Asbestos Exposure?
If you have an asbestos-related illness and known exposure to asbestos, you can seek compensation regardless of whether or not you smoked. Especially if you have mesothelioma, which has not been connected to asbestos, there is no reason you should be denied compensation.
Even if you have lung cancer, which is known to be caused by smoking, you can make a case for asbestos as a contributing cause. The most recent evaluation of research indicates that smoking and asbestos work together to cause lung cancer. Asbestos companies can still be held accountable, even if you smoked.
All asbestos cases are complicated, but more so if you smoked or still smoke. Contact an experienced mesothelioma lawyer for a free consultation and to find out what you can do next. A lawyer can find out which companies exposed you to asbestos. You could be eligible to make a claim with an asbestos trust fund or to file a lawsuit and seek a settlement.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.