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The quality of a person’s voice can influence his life on a variety of levels. An individual’s personal life as well as his career can be dynamically affected by a voice disorder. A voice disorder can ruin a professional singer’s career, it can keep a CEO from effectively communicating to her employees, it can even inhibit the simplest, daily, verbal communication tasks of the afflicted individual. This makes the importance of avoiding voice difficulties that could result in professional or personal impairment, paramount.

Smoking has been proven to be a primary cause of vocal dysfunction, perpetuating everything from a little scratchiness to critical throat cancer. This especially becomes a problem when the pitch, loudness, or quality calls attention to itself rather than to what the speaker is saying. It is also a problem if the speaker experiences pain or discomfort when speaking or singing.

Smoking and exposure to smoke irritates and dries the lining of the voice box. This decreases voice quality, promotes reflux laryngitis and increases the need for throat clearing. Smoking also destroys lung function, and without good lungpower it is impossible to sing or speak at full volume.

When not inhibited by the effects of smoking, air travels from the nasal passages to the pharynx, or what is more commonly known as the throat. When the air leaves the pharynx it passes into the larynx, or the voice box. The voice box is constructed mainly of cartilage, which is a flexible connective tissue. The vocal cords are two pairs of membranes that are stretched across the inside of the larynx. As the air is breathed, the vocal cords vibrate. Humans can control the vibrations of the vocal cords, which enables us to make sounds. Food and liquids are blocked from entering the opening of the larynx by the epiglottis to prevent people from choking during swallowing. Smoking can seriously impair all of these functions, and since they are all so intricately connected, the danger of becoming afflicted with multiple cancers increases when smoking is not ceased.

While it is common for multiple factors to be involved in the development of a voice disorder, certain disorders are more commonly associated with smoking than others. For example, patients with Reinke's edema, a term used to describe very swollen vocal cords, almost always are heavy, long-term smokers, most of whom have gastroesophageal reflux as well. Carcinoma (cancer) of the vocal cord is also most commonly seen in smokers, although it may be seen in non-smoking patients who have gastroesophageal reflux disease. In addition, over 75% of people who develop head and neck cancer have been regular smokers for many years Diseases of the larynx occur when the body overreacts to a foreign substance, such as cigarette or pipe smoke and mounts an immune attack.

Smoking cigarettes, pipes and cigars is a risk factor for all cancers associated with the larynx, oral cavity and esophagus. The risk for these cancers increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and those who smoke pipes or cigars experience a risk similar to that of cigarette smokers. Heavy smokers have laryngeal cancer mortality risks 20 to 30 times greater than non-smokers. In fact, smoking and drinking alcohol are the two most prevalent causes of throat cancer in the United States. The risks associated with tobacco and alcohol multiply when exposures occur simultaneously: for those who both smoke and drink heavily, their habits are responsible for nine out of ten cases of laryngeal cancer in this category. Despite these statistics, people with vocal disorders often find themselves unable to quit smoking. In fact, a great number of those individual’s who have had their larynx removed as a result of smoking, wind up attempting to smoke again.

The main cause of oral cancer is also smoking, because tobacco smoke and heat irritate the mucous membranes inside the mouth. Oral cancer that spreads usually travels to the lymph nodes in the neck. It can also spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms of oral cancer include difficulty swallowing, which is often accompanied by a sore throat and earache. Phlegm with traces of blood may be coughed up. A lump in the throat or a visible enlarged lymph gland in the neck is also a symptom.

In order to accomplish national health objectives to reduce the amount of people who smoke, efforts must be intensified to discourage the commencement of smoking among young people and to encourage smokers to quit. While tobacco control and prevention is a principal concern, it is equally important that we continue to make progress in the treatment of those individuals who are already suffering from smoke related diseases. Still, the best hope for the future is to prevent these diseases from occurring in the first place. Specific prevention strategies include reducing both the access to and the appeal of tobacco products for minors, educational efforts encouraging cessation, improved access to cessation services for smokers interested in quitting, and any other strategies that will prevent the destruction of the voices of America.