Celebrities killed by tobacco-caused illness

Many of us watched the Oscar award ceremony over the past weekend, which is always very entertaining and includes a good deal of reminiscing about past great actors. As I watched some of the great old faces flash across the screen I was reminded how many of them had their life and career brought to a premature end by smoking-caused disease.
In the United States, many people are aware of the fact that great stars such as Yul Bryner , Michael Landon and John Wayne were killed by tobacco, but in fact many more stars have been killed by their smoking than we are generally aware of. Part of it is an understandable desire to preserve some privacy for the person at the end of their life. But in the case of smoking-caused illnesses, it seems that the media sometimes goes out of its way not to mention the ultimate cause of death in a way that they don’t do when it comes to drug or AIDS related deaths. It is not uncommon for newspaper reports also to simply refer to the cause of death as “cancer” rather than to specify it as lung cancer, even when the diagnosis was clear and obtainable in the public domain.

Here is how Professor Simon Chapman (University of Sydney) referred to this phenomenon with regard to the death of George Harrison, in his excellent book on public health:
"His death on 29 November 2001 from smoking caused lung cancer was noted in some reports as if he had died from any other cause, despite losing more than 20 years off the average life expectancy of a 58 year old man. Indeed the ABC network in the USA went so far as to note that unlike many other rock stars of his generation (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison) Harrison had died of "natural causes"44. If we assume Harrison took up smoking at the age of 15, and on average smoked 20 cigarettes a day, he therefore smoked for around 43 years, smoking 314,115 cigarettes in that time. Observations of smoking show that a cigarette takes about 5.6 minutes to smoke45. We can therefore calculate that Harrison had a cigarette alight for a cumulative total of 1221.6 days or 3.34 years of his 58 years. Recalling that he lost about 20 years off normal life expectancy for an Englishman, we can calculate that each of the 314,115 cigarettes he smoked took 33.5 minutes off his life – about 6 times longer than the time it took him to smoke each one."

I’m not writing this article to argue that celebrities shouldn’t smoke because of their role model status. Celebrities have the same right to smoke as anyone else, and the same human tendency to become addicted to the nicotine in tobacco and to be killed by it. Rather I think it is worth recognizing how much poorer the world is for having lost so many talented people too early. I suspect that George C Scott had a few more good movies in him, George Harrison a few more songs, and Peter Jennings a few more news stories. So rather than berate our current smoking celebrities, I think we should make sure they can get access to effective treatment and succeed in quitting.

If you are in the entertainment business and would like help to quit smoking, contact :

You can see a long list of just some of the celebrities killed by smoking-caused diseases at:

You can find more information on Simon Chapman’s book: Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History at:
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.