Most diseases are preventable

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In 1994, Andrew H. Tisch, the CEO of one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world, appeared before Congress, along with six other tobacco CEOs, and testified under oath that cigarettes do not cause cancer[1].

He was lying. He escaped perjury charges only because he framed his statement as a personal �belief.� In reality, smokers are 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers[2].

In fact, in the past 50 years, more than 20 million people have died from smoking and secondhand smoke, according to a Surgeon General�s Report2. Smoking affects almost every organ in the body, and there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. If people continue smoking at current rates, more than 5 million Americans who are under 18 today will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses, which include cancer of the liver, colon, lung, oral cavity, esophagus, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), stomach, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, as well as acute myeloid leukemia. Smoking also causes coronary heart disease and stroke.

But anti-smoking efforts have helped. One study estimates than more than 8 million lives have been saved in the United States as a result of anti-smoking measures�8 million people who, by not smoking, extended their lives by an average of 20 years[3].

Most of the leading causes of death are preventable. For instance, heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases kill almost 750,000 Americans every year. But studies show that more than half of those deaths are preventable[4]. By eliminating the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease�smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity�hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved.

Every year, more than 900,000 Americans die prematurely from the five leading causes of death�heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and accidents, the CDC reports. In theory, 100 percent of those premature deaths could be prevented�meaning those lives could be prolonged�by eliminating the risk factors that contribute to them.

But of course we�ll never prevent all preventable deaths�we�ll never live in a world where no one smokes and no one is obese. But 20 to 40 percent of premature deaths could be prevented if every U.S. state had the same death rate as the states with the lowest rates.

Simply by catching up to the healthiest states, the CDC reports[5], we could prevent:

  • 34 percent of premature deaths from heart diseases (92,000 lives)
  • 21 percent of premature cancer deaths (84,500 lives)
  • 39 percent of premature deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases (29,000 lives)
  • 33 percent of premature stroke deaths (17,000 lives)
  • 39 percent of premature deaths from unintentional injuries (37,000 lives)

We all have to die of something. But simply by living healthier, the evidence shows, we can add years or even decades of healthy years to our lives.


1. Hilts, P.J. (1994, April 15). Tobacco chiefs say cigarettes aren�t addictive. The New York Times.
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). The Health Consequences of Smoking�50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health.
3. Holford, T.R., Meza, R., Warner, K.E., Meernik, C., Jeon, J., Moolgavkar, S.H., & Levy, D.T. (2014). Tobacco control and the reduction in smoking-related premature deaths in the United States, 1964-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311, 164�171.
4. Patel, S.A., Winkel, M., Ali, M.K., Narayan, K.M.V., & Mehta, N.K. (2015). Cardiovascular mortality associated with 5 leading risk factors: National and state preventable fractions estimated from survey data. Annals of Internal Medicine, 163, 245�253.
5. Centers for Disease Control. (2014). Up to 40 percent of annual deaths from each of five leading US causes are preventable [Press release].