Women who smoke worry more about the health risks than men, and both sexes know far less than they should about how cigarettes cause cancer, new research suggests.

The biggest misconception: Well over half of surveyed smokers believed that nicotine was the cancer-causing culprit in cigarettes. Nicotine does not cause cancer, but dozens of other chemicals found in tobacco products do, according to researcher Virginia Reichert, NP.

“There are 4,000 chemicals in every cigarette,” Reichert tells WebMD. “People smoke because they are addicted to the nicotine, but they are getting 3,999 other chemicals, too. Two hundred of those chemicals are poisonous and 43 are known carcinogens.”

Reichert presented results of a survey at Chest 2005, the annual international scientific assembly of the American College of Chest Physicians. The survey included 1,139 smokers enrolled in a smoking-cessation program.

Teens Think Light Cigarettes Are Healthier

The Myth of 'Light' Cigarettes

The mistaken belief that nicotine causes cancer has led to the popularity of so-called “light” cigarettes, which are just as likely to cause cancer as any other tobacco product, Reichert says.

Light cigarettes have less nicotine but may contain as many other cancer-causing chemicals as higher-nicotine cigarettes.

People who smoke light brands often unconsciously end up inhaling deeper and smoking more to get the nicotine that they are addicted to, researchers say.

“The irony is that these cigarettes are worse for you because you expose more of your lung to smoke by inhaling deeper,” Reichert says.

In a 2001 report, the National Cancer Institute found that light cigarettes provided no benefit to smokers’ health, concluding that “there is no such thing as a safe cigarette.”

American Cancer Society spokesman Thomas Glynn, PhD, tells WebMD that though cigarettes have had no impact on lung cancer deaths, they have had another impact.

“Light cigarettes have succeeded in changing where lung cancers are found, but they haven’t reduced them,” says Glynn, director for cancer science and trends for the ACS. “Before light cigarettes, cancers were typically seen in the upper part of the lung. We now also see them in the lower lung because smokers suck harder and deliver smoke deeper into the lung.”

Quit Smoking: Your Guide to Kicking the Habit

Anyone Can Quit

The survey included more than 1,000 men and women attending a smoking-cessation program directed by Reichert at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.

Researchers reported that approximately 72 percent of the women and 59 percent of the men surveyed believed that nicotine caused cancer; 75 percent of women and 64 percent of men worried that smoking would give them cancer.

More women than men (77 percent vs. 62 percent) reported feeling guilty about their smoking habit. And 41 percent of women and slightly less than 15 percent of men worried that they would gain weight if they quit smoking.

The smokers in the survey averaged two unsuccessful attempts at quitting before entering the program, and men and women were equally successful with their latest attempt.

Motivation was the biggest predictor of whether someone would succeed or fail to quit. Another big predictor was how comfortable people were in their first few days without cigarettes.

People who try to quit “cold turkey” with no nicotine replacement almost always fail, Reichert says. And even those who use gums or patches often don’t use as much as they need to. She adds that joining a smoking-cessation program can make all the difference when a smoker really wants to quit.

“A three-pack-a-day smoker may need to use three patches at once to get the same amount of nicotine that their body is used to getting,” she says. “That is more than is recommended, and it should be done under medical supervision. But with intensive long-term nicotine replacement it is absolutely possible for everyone to quit.”

Smoking: Most Want to Quit, Many Feel Hooked

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Annual international science assembly of the American College of Chest Physicians, Oct. 31, 2005. Virginia Reichert, NP, director, Center for Tobacco Control, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, Great Neck, N.Y. Thomas Glynn, PhD, director of cancer sciences and trends, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.