Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in never smoker-never drinkers: a descriptive epidemiologic study

Head Neck. 2008 Jan;30(1):75-84. doi: 10.1002/hed.20664.


Background: While the attributed risk factors for the vast majority of patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) are smoking and alcohol abuse, there appears to be a rising proportion of SCCHN patients who report no significant smoking or drinking history. This study reports the demographic and potential risk factors of a large series of never smoker-never drinker (NSND) patients.

Methods: All subjects were participants in a prospective epidemiologic study of incident SCCHN. We obtained demographic data, clinical characteristics, and potential etiologic factors for 172 NSND patients and 1131 ever smoker-ever drinker (ESED) patients. RESULTS.: NSND patients were more likely to be female and to present at extremes of age, but overall were significantly younger than ESED patients. NSND patients had a higher proportion of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers than ESED patients had. Eleven percent of NSND patients (17% of NSND men) reported regular use of noncigarette tobacco products or marijuana, 41% (45% of NSND women) reported regular environmental exposure to tobacco smoke, 24% (36% of NSND men) reported regular occupational exposures to carcinogens/toxins, and 30% had a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease. More than half the NSND patients with an oropharyngeal primary were serologically positive for human papillomavirus type 16.

Conclusion: NSND patients with SCCHN are commonly young women with oral tongue cancer, elderly women with gingival/buccal cancer, or young to middle-aged men with oropharyngeal cancer. While several exposures studied may be important to the etiology of a subset of these cancers in NSND patients, it is likely that no single known factor is responsible for a majority of SCCHN in NSNDs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / epidemiology*
  • Cotinine / blood
  • Dronabinol / blood
  • Female
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux / epidemiology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Human papillomavirus 16 / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Prospective Studies
  • Seroepidemiologic Studies
  • Sex Distribution
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / statistics & numerical data
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Carcinogens
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Dronabinol
  • Cotinine