Non-smokers are much more likely than smokers to develop mouth cancer if they show early warning signs  

New research has discovered that non-smokers face a substantially higher risk of developing mouth cancer than smokers if they have precancerous lesions in their mouth.

The research1 from the University of British Columbia, published in Oral Oncology, looked at almost 450 patients with precancerous oral lesions and discovered that non-smokers were more than twice as likely to see them develop into mouth cancer than smokers.

In some cases, non-smokers with lesions on the floor of the mouth were a staggering 38 times more likely to develop into cancer than in smokers.

The researchers speculated that the difference between smokers and non-smokers was due to a difference in the root causes of the lesions. In smokers, they were likely the result of environmental factors, whereas in non-smokers, genetic susceptibility or mutations were the probable cause.

Following the release of this startling research, leading health charity, the Oral Health Foundation is calling on everybody to be alert to the early signs of mouth cancer, as catching cases early can have a significant difference in their chances of beating the disease.

Dr Nigel Carter, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation said: “Smoking may be the leading cause of mouth cancer, linked to around three in every four cases, but non-smokers need to be just as vigilant in spotting and acting on any changes to the mouth.”

Lead author of the study and a clinical research coordinator with British Columbia Cancer, Leigha Rock, stressed importance of taking oral lesions seriously, especially when they occur in non-smokers:

If you see a lesion in a smoker, be worried. If you see a lesion in a non-smoker, be very worried. Don’t assume it can’t be cancer because they’re a non-smoker; our research indicates non-smokers may be at higher risk.”

In the United Kingdom, more than 7,500 people are now diagnosed with mouth cancer each year.

Mouth cancer rates have increased by more than two thirds within the last two decades and are predicted to continue increasing the coming years. It is therefore vital that everybody is alert to the signs, symptoms and causes of the disease.


Rock L, Rosin M, Zhang L, Chan B, Shariati B, Laronde D. Characterisation of epithelial oral dysplasia in non-smokers: First steps towards precision medicine. Oral Oncology 2018; 78:119-25.

Follow the link to read the abstract: DOI:

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