Cigarette smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for cancer and heart disease. The more cigarettes a person smokes and the longer it's kept up, the greater the risk of dying from cancer, heart attack, or stroke. Probably less well known is that smokers are also much more likely to catch colds and other infections.

Of course, the best remedy for these risks and problems is quitting smoking, but that's not easy for many people. Because cigarette smoking poses such a public health risk, many studies have attempted to discern whether vitamin supplementation among smokers might help avert cancer and heart disease. However, the results have not been particularly promising, and one supplement, beta-carotene, may actually be dangerous for smokers.

People who smoke often have deficiencies in numerous nutrients, including zinc, calcium, folate, vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lycopene, and essential fatty acids in the omega-3 and omega-6families.1–15 There are many possible causes for this depletion, including free radicals in cigarette smoke that destroy natural antioxidants; however, for some nutrients the most important single cause might be poor diet rather than smoking itself (smokers have, on average, a less well-balanced diet than non-smokers).16

In addition, some evidence suggests that folate or vitamin C supplements may improve arterial function in smokers, thereby potentially helping to prevent heart disease.20,21

High doses of vitamin Ehave not proven helpful for preventing heart disease or lung cancer in smokers.17–19However, vitamin E consumption has shown some promise for reducing risk of prostate cancer in smokers.17

For all these reasons, many smokers undoubtedly benefit from general nutritional support in the form of a multivitamin/mineral tablet. However, high doses of the antioxidant vitamin beta-carotene may not be helpful for smokers, and could even cause harm (see next section).