January 23, 2013 — Women’s smoking habits have grown increasingly to resemble those of men, and as a result, today’s women face a dramatically higher risk of death from lung cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD) compared with female smokers 20 to 40 years ago, the American Cancer Society (ACS) said in a statement, citing two mortality studies appearing in this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Women’s smoking patterns have changed, as many began smoking earlier and smoked more cigarettes per day compared with previous generations, ACS said. As a result, the increase in the risk of death from lung cancer and COLD in female smokers has been large enough to offset longevity improvements from medical advances that have reduced death rates in the rest of the population over the past 50 years.
To determine if the risk of death for women has approached that of men, Dr. Michael Thun, retired ACS vice president emeritus, and colleagues measured 50-year trends in mortality related to smoking across three time periods: 1959 to 1965, 1982 to 1988, and 2000 to 2010. The group compared five large contemporary studies with two historical ACS cohorts comprising about 2.2 million adults ages 55 and older.
For women who smoked in the 1960s, the risk of dying from lung cancer was 2.7 times greater than that of individuals who had never smoked. But for those who smoked between 2000 and 2010, the risk of death was 25.7 times higher than that of individuals who had never smoked. As for COLD, the rate of dying was four times higher than for individuals who had never smoked in the 1960s, and 22.5 times higher by 2000-2010, with about half of the increase in risk occurring during the past 20 years.
Among men who smoked, lung cancer risk plateaued at high levels in the 1980s, while the risk of chronic obstructive lung disease continues to increase for reasons that are unclear. The research also confirmed that quitting at any age dramatically lowers the risk of diseases caused by smoking, and that quitting is far more effective than reducing the number of cigarettes smoked.
Another study in the same NEJM issue (Jha et al) found that persistent lifetime smokers lose an average of about 10 years of life compared with individuals who never smoked. The researchers concluded that smokers who die prematurely lose about 20 years of life.