Famous Tobacco Victims

by Jenny Novac on August 24, 2011

Tobacco is an indiscriminate killer.  It takes young and old, rich and poor alike.  It steals lives  through a multitude of diseases that follow tobacco use, including heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease.

Let’s take a look at some of the celebrities we’ve lost to tobacco over the years.

Famous Tobacco Victims

We often think that the health risks associated with tobacco use don’t apply to the larger than life celebrity figures we admire, but the fact is, no one is immune to the diseases that follow tobacco use.

Let’s take a look at some of the famous people we’ve lost to tobacco over the years.

Smoking and Heart Disease

The leading cause of death in the world and the leading cause of death from smoking, cardiovascular disease accounts for 17 million deaths annually worldwide. Most come from heart attacks and strokes.

Famous Tobacco Victims: Heart Disease

Louis Armstrong

circa 1970: Louis 'Satchmo' ('Satchelmouth') Armstrong (1900 - 1971), the great jazz trumpeter and vocalist wiping his face with a handkerchief as he smokes. (Photo by A. Jones/Express/Getty Images)

  • Louis Armstrong
Definition: Louis Armstrong, musician. Heart attack. Died July 6, 1971 at age 74. A long time cigarette smoker, Mr. Armstrong made radio commercials for Camel Cigarettes in the 1950s

circa 1955: Headshot portrait of American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990) wearing a tuxedo and resting his hand on his cheek while smoking a cigarette under stage lights. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Leonard Bernstein
Definition: Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor. Heart attack due to lung failure. Died Oct. 14, 1990. Leonard Bernstein started smoking in his late teens and smoked until his death at age 72.

British actor and playwright Noel Coward (Sir Noel Pierce Coward, (1899 - 1973) at Buckingham Palace, London, to receive a Knighthood. (Photo by Pierre Manevy/Getty Images)

  • Noel Coward
Definition: Noel Coward, playwright, composer, director, actor and singer. Heart attack. Mr. Coward suffered from atherosclerosis and died at his home of heart failure on March 26, 1973. He was 73 years old.

1925: A studio portrait of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940) wearing a suit and tie and holding a lighted cigarette. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
Definition: F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, died on Dec. 21, 1940 from a massive heart attack following a lifetime of excessive use of alcohol and cigarettes. He was 44 years old

circa 1960: Studio headshot portrait of British author Ian Fleming (1908-1964), the creator of James Bond, smoking a cigarette in a holder. (Photo by Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Ian Fleming
Definition: Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Heart attack. Years of smoking and drinking led to heart disease and his death on Aug. 12, 1964. He was 56.

circa 1945: Studio headshot portrait of American actor Clark Gable (1901 - 1960) wearing a herringbone tweed jacket. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Clark Gable
Definition: Clark Gable, actor. Heart attack. Heavy drinking and smoking (approximately three packs a day) for many years took their toll. It was suspected that his weight and subsequent crash dieting for the film, The Misfits, also played a part in the heart attackthat took his life on November 16, 1960. He was 59 years old.

The toxins in cigarette smoke cause plaques to form in the arteries of smokers, leading to atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. Smoking can also cause sudden heart attacks, even in people who have never had a cardiac event before. Smokers have two to three times the risk of nonsmokers of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Smoking and Cancer

Once inhaled, the toxins in cigarette smoke reach virtually every organ in a smoker’s body, putting them at risk for numerous forms of cancer.

The second cause of death in the United States today, approximately 30% of all cancer deaths are linked to tobacco use. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and also the most preventable, with 87% of lung cancer deaths being related to smoking.

Smoking-related cancer risk goes up with the number of pack years reached.

Famous Tobacco Victims: Cancer

    • Stephen E. Ambrose

Stephen E. Ambrose, a military historian and biographer, died of lung cancer on Oct. 13, 2002 at age 66. A long-time smoker, Ambrose had just 6 months after diagnosis to live.


Actress Lucille Ball (1911-1989) and her husband, actor Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) pictured at home, USA, circa 1955. Arnaz is smoking while lighting Ball's cigarette. They divorced in 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

    • Desi Arnaz

Actor Desi Arnaz died of lung cancer on Dec. 2, 1986 at age 69. He was a star of the I Love Lucy TV series with wife Lucille Ball — both were smokers.
I Love Lucy was sponsored by Philip Morris, with their cigarette products appearing both in the show and in commercials during the show’s time slot.

The pair promoted cigarettes in this vintage Philip Morris TV commercial.


American actress Barbara Bel Geddes (1922 - 2005) attends the 38th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, 31st January 1981. (Photo by Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images)

    • Barbara Bel Geddes

Barbara Bel Geddes, actress. Lung cancer. Best known as Miss Ellie, matriarch of the Ewing family on the 1980s show Dallas, Bel Geddes smoked for many years. It wasn’t until she suffered a major heart attack in 1984 that she decided, along with some encouragement from her doctor, to quit smoking. She left the series temporarily to recover, but returned months later.

Barbara Bel Geddes ultimately died of lung cancer at her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, on August 8, 2005.


circa 1955: Full-length image of American actor and singer Rosemary Clooney (1928 - 2002) flipping over a music sheet on a music stand while singing into a microphone in a recording studio and holding a lighted cigarette. She is wearing a calf-length gingham skirt with a long-sleeved sweater. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    • Rosemary Clooney

Rosemary Clooney was a singer and actress. A heavy smoker for most of her life, she was diagnosed with lung cancer late in 2001. She had a lobectomy in January of 2002, but suffered a recurrence months later. She lost her battle with lung cancer on June 29, 2002 at the age of 74.


17th May 1960: American singer and pianist Nat 'King' Cole (1919 - 1965) during a visit to London. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

    • Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole, jazz singer. Lung cancer. Died Feb. 15, 1965 at the age of 45.
A KOOL menthol cigarette smoker, he would often smoke several cigarettes in a row before recording his songs. He believed they helped keep his deep, crooning voice low. He smoked approximately three packs of cigarettes a day.

Nat King Cole recorded his last album L-O-V-E days before admission to the hospital for lung cancer treatment. The album was released just before his death.


Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison performs December 3, 1963 during a concert. It was reported November 8, 2001 that Harrison is undergoing cancer treatment in a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital. Harrison, 58, died in Los Angeles after a long battle against cancer, a family friend said November 30, 2001. (Photo by Getty Images)

    • George Harrison

George Harrison, musician and lead guitarist for The Beatles. Lung cancer. George was initially treated for throat cancer in 1997. In 2001, he had surgery for lung cancer, which then metastasized to his brain. He died on Nov. 29, 2001, at the age of 58.


American author and Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike in a youthful portrait, seated on a bench outdoors, holding a cigarette. His novels include Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux and Couples. He is also a long-time contributor and critic for The New Yorker magazine. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    • John Updike

Pulitzer Prize winning author with over 50 books penned under his name, John Updike fell victim to lung cancer. He died on Jan. 27, 2009.

A long-time smoker, it is unclear whether Mr. Updike had quit smoking before his cancer diagnosis. He was 76 years old when he died.

Smoking and Respiratory Disease

Smoking is directly linked to most types of chronic lung disease. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is the third leading cause of death in the United States today, claiming a life every 4 minutes.

Twelve million people have been diagnosed with COPD and it’s estimated another 12 million have it who haven’t been diagnosed.

Famous Tobacco Victims: COPD

  • Mary Astor
  • Tallulah Bankhead
  • Johnny Carson

Tobacco Victims: Our Loved Ones

If we live long enough, just about all of us will be touched in some way by the destruction that follows tobacco. Here at About.com Smoking Cessation we have a gallery that pays tribute to those we’ve loved and lost to tobacco.

  • Tobacco Victims: Gallery of Lost Loved Ones

If you have lost someone to tobacco and would like to share their story, we would be honored to have it added to the growing library of personal accounts.

  • Lost Loved Ones Submission Form

With five million people falling victim yearly to tobacco use worldwide, most of us have, or will, lose someone we love to a smoking-related disease.

As hard as it is to think about, facing the reality of where smoking leads helps us change our course and commit to smoking cessation.

This gallery pays tribute to those we’ve lost to tobacco and allows their stories to live on to inspire others to quit smoking.

We would be honored to have your loved one’s story added to the permanent library here at About.com Smoking Cessation. Please share below and include a photo of your loved one, if possible.
One in ten deaths worldwide is due to tobacco use, causing nearly six million deaths each and every year. If trends continue unchecked, that number could rise to eight million lives lost annually by the year 2030.

If you’re still smoking, quit now.

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