The Economist posted this claim on Facebook and Twitter, accompanied by a short video.

In some cities, it's more dangerous to breathe than to smoke cigarettes.

I can imagine it's more dangerous to live and breathe in a certain city for a year than to smoke one cigarette a year (at some completely unpolluted location). But I have trouble imagining that it's more dangerous to live and breathe in any city than to smoke cigarettes non-stop, continuously for every second of the day (again at some completely unpolluted location).

So I suspect this somewhat-vague claim by The Economist has some truth, but we need to be more specific about the rate at which we're smoking cigarettes (and possibly other factors as well). And so my question:

In what sense (if any) is this claim true?

  • 1
    I think you would have to assume that the comparison is based on typical smoking rates, not the extreme cases. Which from a quick search seems to be about 10-20 cigarettes per day: visual.ly/community/infographic/lifestyle/…
    – jamesqf
    Jun 25, 2017 at 5:58
  • Hong Kong and Beijing come to mind. Jun 25, 2017 at 6:19
  • Most (or at least many) smokers use filters when smoking cigarettes. Most city dwellers do not
    – Henry
    Jun 25, 2017 at 22:30

1 Answer 1


I was considering the same question when I lived in Shanghai (a very polluted city indeed) and was told that many industrial cities in the north east of China was many times worse.

While smokers may decide how many cigarettes they may smoke within the limits imposed by their addiction, people have to endure the pollution in the city they live. Epidemiologists have tried to calculate the approximate number of cigarettes you have to smoke in order to be exposed to an equivalent risk of dying.

One interesting although crude comparison of cigarettes and outdoor pollution (as measured by PM2.5) is this from an environmental think thank http://berkeleyearth.org/air-pollution-and-cigarette-equivalence/

Place | Equivalent in cigarettes/day
US, average              |  0.4 
EU, average              |  1.6 
China, average           |  2.4 
Beijing, average         |  4.0
Handan, average          |  5.5
Beijing, bad day         | 25.0
Harbin, very bad day     | 45.0
Shenyang, worst recorded | 63.0
  • 1
    The wording in this berkeley earth site is really misleading, there is a lot of rough estimates to compare PM2.5 pollution deaths to smoking deaths. Anyways here is their sources I think. ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1103639
    – daniel
    Jun 26, 2017 at 7:29

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