No, Smoking Is Not Good For Your (Breast) Health

An article published this afternoon in the Archives Internal Medicine sheds some interesting light on the ongoing question of whether or not cigarette smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.  And guess what? According to this research, for some women the answer is yes, for others no and for some-believe it or not-the risk of breast cancer may be decreased.


That smoking could actually decrease the risk of breast cancer is one of those “believe it or not” moments in evidence-based medicine, but I wouldn’t go around cheering that smoking is good for your health.  It isn’t, and nothing about the findings in this study should change anyone’s opinions about the risks of tobacco. [more]


The research, which was done by very highly regarded scientists from Harvard, reviewed the relationship between smoking and breast cancer in a large group of nurses who have been carefully studied prospectively for the effects of active smoking (from 1976-2006) and passive smoking (1982-2006).  There are 111,140 women in the active smoking study and 36,017 in the passive group.


The scientists looked as carefully as possible at a number of related items, such as the number of years smoked, the number of packs per day, when (and if) a woman in the study stopped smoking among others.  They also looked at a number of factors that may have influenced a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer and made adjustments to the data to account for those as well.


They found that-in general-cigarette smoking “marginally” increased the incidence of breast cancer compared to women who had never smoked.  Every increase of 20 pack years of smoking (a “pack-year” is one year of smoking one pack of cigarettes, so 20 pack years could be 2 packs a day for 10 years or one pack a day for 20 years) beyond the onset of menstrual periods as also associated with a “marginal” increase in the incidence of breast cancer as well.


In one analysis of their data, the researchers combined several “smoking” factors, and found that women who were “heavy smokers” (defined as more than 35 years with more than 25 cigarettes a day) and who started smoking before the age of 18 had a 25% higher risk of breast cancer compared with women who never smoked.


In a somewhat unusual twist, the researchers report that as pre-menopausal women smoked more cigarettes, their risk of breast cancer increased.  However-and this is where things get interesting-for every 20 pack year increase AFTER menopause there was a “marginally decreased incidence of breast cancer” amounting to about 7%.


For women who smoked and developed breast cancer, there was a slight preponderance of hormone sensitive breast cancers as women consumed more cigarettes.


Exposure to passive smoke in women who were active smokers showed that passive smoking increased breast cancer risk compared to actively smoking women who reported little passive smoke exposure.  In non-smokers, exposure to passive smoking under a number of scenarios did not influence breast cancer risk.


The authors conclude:


“Results from the present study suggest that the initiation of smoking before menopause and particularly before the first birth was most strongly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer…Smoking after menopause was positively associated with a slightly decreased breast cancer risk.  This difference suggests an antiestrogenic effect of smoking among postmenopausal women that may further reduce their already low endogenous (internal) estrogen levels.”


In other words, if you are premenopausal, and are a heavy smoker, your risk of breast cancer is increased.  In postmenopausal women, smoking may decrease circulating hormone levels (which are already low in these women) and have a slight protective effect, while at the same time blocking the positive effects of estrogen and potentially explain some of the increased risk of osteoporosis seen in postmenopausal women.


In another conclusion,  the authors write:


“Our results combined with the evidence from previous prospective cohort studies collectively suggest that passive smoking may not play an important role in the etiology of breast cancer.  Nonetheless, we found that regular exposure to passive smoking may magnify the effect of active smoking.”




“Despite the extensive research on cigarette smoking in relation to breast cancer risk, this association remains controversial.  Results from the present study suggest that the potential effect of active smoking on breast cancer risk is modest.  The risk of breast cancer may increase with younger age at smoking initiation and longer duration of smoking.  Antiestrogenic effects of smoking, which may convey a reduced risk of breast cancer, are suggested to be more dominant among postmenopausal women.”


What should we make of these findings?


As pointed out by Dr. Michael Thun–who is one of my American Cancer Society colleagues, and an acknowledged expert on these issues–others have studied the relationship between cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk and concluded that the evidence is limited for active smoking, and debatable regarding passive smoking.  And while everyone would like to have more definitive guidance, the reality is that answers to the question of breast cancer in relation to tobacco smoke have to be put into the larger context that smoking cigarettes does lots of bad things to your body. 


We can have academic arguments about the impact of cigarette smoking on breast cancer risk, but even the current paper points out some of the difficulties in coming to definitive conclusions.  And even when the relationship appears to be statistically significant, from a practical standpoint (as noted by the authors several times in their report) the impact is “modest” or “marginal.”  That translates into an increase of a couple of percentage points in risk, but not the huge magnitudes of increased risk that have been seen for other cancers, especially lung cancer.


So while this research is important and well done, no one should take any comfort that smoking can decrease the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women anymore than they can grab onto the findings that smoking increases the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.


The message remains the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow and for years to come: smoking is just plain bad for your health, no ifs and or butts.



J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog ( which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

1 thought on “No, Smoking Is Not Good For Your (Breast) Health

  1. And the nicotine in cigarettes may be spurring breast cancer’s spread. There was a study published by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School about nicotine maybe helping to push breast cancer cells from the original tumor to other parts of the body, contributing to metastasis.

    The findings were published in the October 15, 2008 issue of Cancer Research. Nicotine has been connected with a variety of malignancies, not just lung cancer, but also head and neck cancer, prostate cancer, and possibly more.

    According to Dr. Chang Yan Chen, it has been known that there are 10 to 12 nicotine receptors that express on the surface of various cells. They do not know why nicotine receptors express in all the cell surfaces from various tissue origins, but they do know that nicotine is an important neuron transmitter in the central nervous system. Nicotine can actually promote certain intra-cellular signaling in lung cancer (Clin Cancer Res October 15, 2008; 14 (20)).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *