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Women leveling field as smokers

Lung cancer risk rises over years as habit widens

Smoke like a man, die like a man.

U.S. women who smoke today have a much greater risk of dying from lung cancer than they did decades ago, partly because they are starting younger and smoking more – that is, they are lighting up like men, new research shows.

Women also have caught up with men in their risk of dying from smoking-related illnesses. Lung cancer risk leveled off in the 1980s for men but is still rising for women.

“It’s a massive failure in prevention,” said one study leader, Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society. And it’s likely to repeat itself in places like China and Indonesia where smoking is growing, he said. About 1.3 billion people worldwide smoke.

The research is in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. It is one of the most comprehensive looks ever at long-term trends in the effects of smoking and includes the first generation of U.S. women who started early in life and continued for decades, long enough for health effects to show up.

The U.S. has more than 35 million smokers – about 20 percent of men and 18 percent of women. The percentage of people who smoke is far lower than it used to be; rates peaked around 1960 in men and two decades later in women.

Researchers wanted to know whether smoking is still as deadly as it was in the 1980s, given that cigarettes have changed (less tar), many smokers have quit, and treatments for many smoking-related diseases have improved.

One study looked at 217,000 Americans in federal health surveys between 1997 and 2004.

A second study tracked smoking-related deaths through three periods – 1959-65, 1982-88 and 2000-10 – using population health surveys covering more than 2.2 million people.

Among the findings:

•The risk of dying of lung cancer was more than 25 times higher for female smokers in recent years than for women who never smoked. In the 1960s, it was only three times higher. One reason: After World War II, women started taking up the habit at a younger age and began smoking more.

•A person who never smoked was about twice as likely as a current smoker to live to age 80. For women, the chances of surviving that long were 70 percent for those who never smoked and 38 percent for smokers. In men, the numbers were 61 percent and 26 percent.

•Smokers in the U.S. are three times more likely to die between ages 25 and 79 than non-smokers are. About 60 percent of those deaths are attributable to smoking.

•Women are far less likely to quit smoking than men are. Among people 65 to 69, the ratio of former to current smokers is 4-to-1 for men and 2-to-1 for women.

•Smoking shaves more than 10 years off the average life span, but quitting at any age buys time.

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