By Andrea Kirsten-Coleman Every year on May 31, the World Health Organization marks World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), to highlight the risks associated with tobacco use and advocate for policies to reduce tobacco consumption. Tobacco kills up to half its users, nearly six million people each year. More than five million of these deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while more than 600,000 are among non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. A lifetime smoker will die about seven years before a non-smoker with similar educational level, income and gender, according to the U.S. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. While tobacco is commonly associated with a higher risk of lung cancer, it plays a role in many other cancers, including cervical cancer. Cigarette smoke – even second-hand smoke – can triple the risk of cervical cancer. “Even three or four hours a day of passive smoke raises your risk,” says gynecologist Rachel Reitan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Tulane University School of Medicine. To make matters worse, nearly 80 percent of the world’s one billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries, many in Africa, where cervical cancer rates are also high. Although HPV primarily causes cervical cancer, cigarette smoking is considered a co-factor, which means that certain types of HPV and cancer-causing chemicals related to smoking appear to work together to increase the likelihood of developing cancer because:
- Smoking might prevent the body’s immune system from effectively fighting human papillomavirus (HPV) infection;
- Carcinogens from smoking might amplify the effect of HPV infection in cervical cells; and
- Carcinogens from smoking might move the cancer-growing genetic code more quickly from the virus to cervical cells, especially with the strains of HPV that pose the greatest risk of causing cancer.