Do you know what the leading cause of premature death is in the United States? Chances are you don’t, finds a recent survey by Partnership for Prevention, a public health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The survey is a spin-off of a larger report from Partnership for Prevention, which includes public policy recommendations based on the nine leading causes of premature death. As reviewed in the report, the top nine causes are tobacco use, poor diet/sedentary living, alcohol abuse, infectious diseases, toxic agents, firearms, sexual behaviors, motor vehicle accidents and illicit drug use.

Using a nationally representative sample, researchers interviewed 1,000 American adults. When asked, “What do you think are the leading causes of premature death in the United States?” only 23 percent of those surveyed correctly identified cigarette smoking as the No. 1 cause of premature death in this country.

Roughly 2 million people die each year in the United States. According to government reports, as many as a half of these deaths are preventable.

Smoking is estimated to cause approximately 400,000 annual deaths, constituting almost 40 percent of all preventable U.S. deaths each year. While consumers may associate cheap cigarettes primarily with lung cancer, emphysema and other lung diseases, smoking is also a major cause of cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and stroke), impotence, and cancers of the mouth, tongue and esophagus. Cigarette smoking also contributes to cervical, colorectal and kidney tumors, blindness and hearing loss.

Sixty percent of those surveyed believed that motor vehicle accidents, illicit drugs or firearms topped the list of the leading causes of premature death. Yet, the mortalities from these causes combined make up less than 10 percent of the approximately 1 million preventable yearly deaths.

“Americans are confused about what’s really killing them” said Partnership for Prevention’s president Ashley Coffield, MPA. “Highly publicized issues like violence and AIDS tend to shape the public’s consciousness about health hazards,” she added.

As this and other studies suggest, popular media coverage is often a poor gauge of public health realities.

For example, an ACSH evaluation of health reporting by the widely respected TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” revealed a mediocre overall performance in accuracy, objectivity and fairness.

“Americans rely on television, newspapers and magazines for much of their health information,” said Dr. Gilbert Ross, ACSH’s medical director. “That’s why it’s so critical that the media get their stories straight. Trusted shows like ’60 Minutes’ have a responsibility to provide accurate and balanced information to the public, which they’re not doing well now,” Dr. Ross said.

Commenting on the Partnership for Prevention survey, Ross stated, “It’s clear from this survey and others that despite what the tobacco industry says, most Americans are not aware of the real causes of premature death, especially smoking.”