Cancer develops following genetic damage to DNA and epigenetic changes. These changes affect the normal functions of the cell, including cell proliferation, programmed cell death (apoptosis) and DNA repair. As more damage accumulates, the risk of cancer increases.
Smoking, particularly of cigarettes, is by far the main contributor to lung cancer. Cigarette smoke contains at least 73 known carcinogens, including benzo[a]pyrene, NNK, 1,3-butadiene and a radioactive isotope of polonium, polonium-210. Across the developed world, 90% of lung cancer deaths in men during the year 2000 were attributed to smoking (70% for women). Smoking accounts for about 85% of lung cancer cases.
Passive smoking—the inhalation of smoke from another’s smoking—is a cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. A passive smoker can be defined as someone living or working with a smoker. Studies from the US, Europe and the UK have consistently shown a significantly increased risk among those exposed to passive smoke. Those who live with someone who smokes have a 20–30% increase in risk while those who work in an environment with secondhand smoke have a 16–19% increase in risk. Investigations of sidestream smoke suggest it is more dangerous than direct smoke. Passive smoking causes about 3,400 deaths from lung cancer each year in the USA.
Marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as those in tobacco smoke. However, the effect of smoking cannabis on lung cancer risk is not clear. A 2013 review did not find an increased risk from light to moderate use. A 2014 review found that smoking cannabis doubled the risk of lung cancer.