Some argue that pipe smoking is far less harmful than smoking cigarettes. But this assumption is based on several old myths that don’t stand up to more recent research. Here’s what we know.

It’s well-established that cigarette smoking is harmful to your health. But what about other forms of tobacco consumption, like pipe smoking?

Some claim that pipe smoking is nearly risk-free. While some of the risks associated with smoking may be slightly lower for those who smoke pipes, pipe smoking can still harm your health in various ways.

Let’s explore some common beliefs about pipe smoking and compare them to scientific research.

Cigarette tobacco is often heavily processed and may contain a range of additives to enhance the flavor and aroma while making it burn more evenly. These additives can include substances like:

  • sugars
  • humectants
  • chemical flavorings

People advertise many tobacco pipe products as being “additive-free.” While some of these might contain fewer additives than cigarette tobacco, they often still contain some additives for flavor, aroma, and preservation. Pipe tobacco may also contain heavy metals, like lead and cadmium, due to soil contamination.

But even the purest, most “natural” tobacco grown in healthy soil still produces harmful chemicals when burned, including tar and carbon monoxide. Plus, all tobacco smoke, regardless of the source, contains more than 70 carcinogens (chemicals known to cause cancer), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 2010 study suggested there’s a link between pipe smoking and increased risk of:

While these risks were slightly lower than those associated with smoking cigarettes (and greater than those associated with smoking cigars), the authors note that individual risk depends on several factors, including a person’s:

  • smoking frequency
  • inhalation habits
  • the length of time they’ve been smoking

While many pipe smokers don’t inhale, others do. For instance, research consistently shows that former cigarette smokers who switch to pipes or cigars as a harm reduction strategy are more likely to inhale, while primary pipe or cigar smokers generally don’t.

In addition, the amount of smoke you inhale may depend on factors such as the:

  • type of tobacco
  • pipe stem length
  • way the person smokes the pipe

People who smoke from pipes tend to hold the smoke in their mouths for a time before exhaling.

In this case, the smoke is still absorbable through the mucous membranes in your mouth and throat. These tissues are highly vascularized, which means that they can quickly absorb the harmful chemicals and transport them into your bloodstream.

Some people point to a 1964 Surgeon General report about the health effects of smoking as evidence that people who smoke pipes live longer than cigarette smokers and nonsmokers. However, the report states that the number of deaths was a “little if at all higher” than for nonsmokers, meaning the number was similar — not lower — for pipe smokers.

In the nearly 60 years since that report, researchers have learned a lot more about how the number of deaths differed between pipe smokers, cigarette smokers, and nonsmokers.

In the mid-1970s, a long-term study screened 16,932 men (ages 20 to 49) for cardiovascular disease risk factors. The men were re-screened after 3 to 13 years, and the researchers followed them throughout 2007. The authors published the study results in 2010.

The findings showed no significant difference in the number of deaths between pipe and cigarette smokers who smoked comparable amounts of tobacco.

While occasionally smoking a pipe may be less harmful than smoking cigarettes regularly, no form of smoking is entirely safe, and even occasional smoking carries health risks.

Even if you’re only exposed to tobacco once in a while, tobacco smoke contains harmful chemicals that can damage the body’s organs and increase your risk of serious health conditions.

Research shows that pipe smokers are at an increased risk of cancers of the head and neck, lungs, and liver. Even people who’ve always smoked pipes or cigars (and never cigarettes) have an increased risk of developing these cancers when compared with those who’ve never smoked any tobacco product.

Additionally, smoking a pipe can also have other negative effects on your body, including:

  • staining your teeth and fingers
  • causing bad breath, a persistent cough, wrinkles, and premature skin aging
  • increasing your risk of gum disease and tooth loss

It’s also worth noting that nicotine is a highly habit-forming substance, and even occasional tobacco use can lead to dependence and make it difficult to quit.

Evidence suggests that while cigarette smoking has dropped 39% from 2000 to 2015, pipe smoking has jumped 556.4%. One reason for this change is the belief that pipe smoking is less harmful than cigarettes.

It’s important to remember that even if you don’t inhale or only smoke occasionally, pipe smoking can still be harmful to your health and increase the risk of a range of serious health conditions.