24th January 2013 - Women who smoke are now just as likely to die of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases as men and smokers of both sexes die, on average, about a decade earlier than non-smokers.
These are among the findings from two major studies examining trends in death rates among smokers published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the UK. It's estimated it causes more than 100,000 premature deaths every year.
Dr Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, led a study that tracked smoking deaths over three time periods during the last 50 years. He says the new data confirms that women who smoke have the same risk for death as men.
The analysis included about 2.2 million US adults who were age 55 and older.
"When women smoke like men, they die like men," Dr Thun says.
Smoking rates among US women were among their highest in the late 60s when around one in three adult women smoked. In the UK smoking among women peaked at 45% in the same decade.
The study shows a 23-fold increase in the risk of dying from lung cancer among women smokers between1960 and 2000.
"It takes about 50 years for an epidemic to really get going, and we are just beginning to see the impact of the increase in smoking among women during this time period in terms of deaths from smoking," says Dr Thun.
Smokers who stop early gain years
In a second analysis, researchers determined that people who smoke into middle age lose about a decade of life to the habit, but smokers who stop before the age of 40 regain most of these lost years.
The researchers examined data on about 200,000 men and women over age 25 interviewed between 1997 and 2004, and identified about 16,000 who had died several years later.
They found that smokers who quit in their mid-30s to mid-40s gained about nine years of life. Those who quit from their mid-40s to mid-50s gained about six. Those who quit later than this, but before age 65, gained about four additional years.
Researcher Dr Prabhat Jha, of the Center for Global Health Research at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, says a key message from this study is that it is never too early or too late for smokers to gain health benefits from quitting.
"Quitting smoking before age 40, and preferably well before 40, gives back almost all the decade of lost life from continued smoking," he says. "That’s not to say, however, that it is safe to smoke until you are 40 and then stop."
"That’s because former smokers continue to have a greater risk of dying than people who never smoked, but the risk is small compared to the huge risk of continuing the habit," Dr Jha says.
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