Press release

Smokers twice as likely to die of stroke

New Public Health England smokefree campaign highlights the toxic effect of smoking on the heart, brain and lungs.


Today (29 December 2013) Public Health England (PHE) launches a new Smokefree Health Harms campaign highlighting the impact and serious damage that smoking causes the body.

The new campaign, supported by TV advertising, brings to life the toxic cycle of dirty blood caused by inhaling the dangerous chemicals in cigarettes, including arsenic and cyanide flowing through the body and damaging major organs. The chemicals move through the heart, the lungs and into the bloodstream, finally damaging cells in the brain.

Along with the heart and lungs, the brain is particularly vulnerable to these toxins, leading to a faster decline in functionality and an increased risk of stroke and dementia.

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that smokers are twice as likely to die from a stroke than non-smokers [1]. Smoking can cause the arteries to narrow which, in turn, increases the likelihood of blood clots that can lead to a stroke.

Studies also suggest that smoking accelerates cognitive decline in men [2] and women [3] leading smokers to experience poorer memory and a greater decline in reasoning in later life.

The risk of dementia, along with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer are further increased when smoking is combined with any or all of heavy drinking, poor diet, lack of exercise and high blood pressure [4][5].

The new campaign will be live from 30 December with support, advice and a range of tools available for anyone looking to stop smoking. Anyone looking to quit can visit the smokefree website to receive free support tools and find details of where they can get professional advice through their local NHS stop smoking service.

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said:

We know about the serious effect smoking has on the heart and lungs but smokers need to be aware of how much potential damage is being done to the brain and other vital organs through toxins in cigarettes entering the blood.

Smoking is the major cause of premature death, with 1 in 2 smokers dying prematurely from smoking related diseases, and it is extremely worrying that people still underestimate the health harms associated with it.

However, it is not all doom and gloom for smokers looking to quit this New Year. Within 5 years of stopping smoking, your risk of stroke can be reduced to the same as a lifetime non-smoker.

Research Associate at University College London (UCL), Dr Gareth Hagger-Johnson, who conducted one of the studies into cognitive function, said:

Accelerated decline in cognitive reasoning and memory is more advanced in smokers, with one of our studies at UCL showing it to be nearly 38% faster in persistent male smokers compared to non-smokers.

The decline in the brain’s cognitive powers is naturally seen with ageing but there are a number of identifiable risk factors, including smoking and heavy alcohol consumption, which can be associated with an accelerated rate of decline. Healthy behaviours in midlife may help preserve cognitive function into early old age, but all smokers should consider quitting to help protect their brain from serious long term harm.

Joe Korner, Director of External Affairs at Stroke Association, said:

It is well known that smoking harms our health but the link between smoking and stroke is less well known. Stroke is a major cause of death and adult disability in the UK and you are twice as likely to have a stroke if you smoke. The more you smoke, the more your risk increases.

Stopping smoking is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke; after 5 years of giving up, your risk of stroke can be reduced to that of a non-smoker. We welcome the NHS Smokefree Health Harms campaign to tackle this serious issue.

Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing for PHE, said:

More than 8 million people smoke in England, and with half of long-term smokers dying prematurely from a smoking-related disease, highlighting the unseen damaging effect smoking has on the body’s major organs provides a real motivation for people to stop.

As well as the impact smoking has on the brain, smokers are also more likely to have a stroke, so this hard-hitting campaign will, I hope, help smokers consider quitting. There is a wealth of health and personal benefits available to those who successfully stop and help can be sought through the full range of Smokefree support, which includes face-to-face advice, Smokefree app, Quit Kit, plus email and text programmes.



[1] 50-Year Trends in Smoking-Related Mortality in the United States (2013) - Michael J. Thun, M.D., Brian D. Carter, M.P.H., Diane Feskanich, Sc.D., Neal D. Freedman, Ph.D., M.P.H., Ross Prentice, Ph.D., Alan D. Lopez, Ph.D., Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., and Susan M. Gapstur, Ph.D., M.P.H.

[2] Impact of smoking on cognitive decline in early old age: the Whitehall II cohort study. Arch Gen Psychiatry 69: 627–635. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2016. - Sabia S, Elbaz A, Dugravot A, Head J, Shipley M, et al. (2012].

[3] Gender differences in the association of smoking and drinking with the development of cognitive impairment. (2013) PLoS One 8: e75095. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075095. - Park B, Park J, Jun JK, Choi KS, Suh M.

[4] Combined impact of smoking and heavy alcohol use on cognitive decline in early old age: Whitehall II prospective cohort study. (2013) Br J Psychiatry 203: 120–125. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.112.122960. Hagger-Johnson G, Sabia S, Brunner EJ, Shipley M, Bobak M, et al.

[5] Healthy Lifestyles Reduce the Incidence of Chronic Diseases and Dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly Cohort Study. PLoS One 8: e81877 (2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081877. Elwood P, Galante J, Pickering J, Palmer S, Bayer A, et al].

Notes to editors

Public Health England press office

Published 29 December 2013