Pipe Smoking and Its Link to Cancer

pipe smoking and cancer

Albert Einstein once remarked that pipe smoking “contributed to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” Whether the observation is true or not, pipe smoking has had many other famous devotees, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the fictional Sherlock Holmes, who often disappeared into a haze of pipe smoke while solving his cases.

Today, pipes are still a symbol of leisurely sophistication. The lengthy rituals of pipe smoking add to that aura: choosing from a variety of pipes and tobaccos, cleaning and loading the briar, puffing and tamping, then sitting in a fragrant swirl of smoke and contemplating life.

Michael Thun, MD, vice president of epidemiology and surveillance for the American Cancer Society, knows the ritual well. He used to be a pipe smoker — but he found good reason to quit. “Tobacco is highly addictive and remarkably destructive, however you use it,” Thun says. In other words, it’s doesn’t matter if you smoke tobacco or puff it in a pipe: it’s a potent cause of cancer and other diseases.

Decades ago, doctors began to notice high rates of tongue cancer in pipe smokers. Since then, pipe smoking has been shown to cause cancer of the mouth, lip, tongue, throat, larynx, and lung, Thun says. According to Thun, pipe smokers may also increase their risk of contracting other cancers that plague cigarette smokers: cancer of the pancreas, kidney, bladder, colon, and cervix as well as leukemia and diseases such as chronic obstructive lung disease, stroke, and coronary heart disease.

A 1996 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine estimated that the number of deaths in the United States attributable to pipe smoking in 1991 ranged from 650 to 2,820, the majority from lung cancer. The middle estimate, a little more than 1,000 deaths, was greater than the number of male deaths from Hodgkin’s disease, bone cancer, or tuberculosis in the United States in the same year.

A 2004 National Cancer Institute study followed 138,307 men — more than 15,000 of them smoked pipes — over a period of 18 years. The study found that pipe smoking was associated with increased mortality caused by lung, oropharynx, esophageal, larynx, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease, when compared to the nonsmokers in the study. The researchers reported, pipe smoking confers a risk of tobacco-associated disease similar to cigar smoking.

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