Smoking's deadly toll among women: a new report

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It s been 60 years since the first solid reports of the causal effects of cigarettes and premature death and disease made the news, and almost 50 since the Surgeon General s report made believers out of almost everyone: Cigarettes are killers.

Back then, two-thirds of men and almost half of all women smoked regularly, with the toll of lung and other cancers as well as heart and chronic lung disease rising in parallel with the increasing number of smokers. The dramatic rise in cancer, especially, was blamed on all sorts of environmental chemicals and foods, cleverly abetted by the tobacco industry to distract attention from the real cause. But as the rate of smoking gradually declined over the decades, while the rate of cancer and heart disease fell albeit with a twenty-year lag period it became clear to any who wished to see: smoking was the cause of the cancer epidemic.

In Britain, 23 of the top 30 causes of death are smoking-related, and this same statistic is likely true here as well. Even so, tragically, about one-fifth of us in the U.S. still smoke, 46 million addicted to nicotine. And that includes 18% of women, a figure just slightly below the male smoking rate. Women have come a long way, baby, but there s still have a long way to go.

So a recent study out of the U.K., the Million Women Study, comes as good news: Among women who smoke, quitting before age 30 reduces the damage from smoking by 97%; even quitting by age 40 lowers the risk by 90%! Women smokers who quit before middle age will gain, on average, an extra ten years of life.

The bad news is that even light smokers those who smoked less than 10 cigarettes daily had double the risk of dying over the 12-year study period. And among those who continued to smoke, at any level, the overall risk of death was triple that of non-smokers.

The reason why this information is only now being tabulated is that women took up smoking much later than did men generally around the time of the second World War and it takes twenty or more years for the damage done by smoking to occur.

It s devilishly hard to quit for highly addicted smokers, and even for lighter smokers it often takes many tries to finally become smoke-free. Unfortunately, the commonly used aids for quitting, such as gum, patches, and drugs, don t help all that much. Other methods still being explored include "harm reduction" via reduced risk tobacco products, such as snus, a non-chewed form of smokeless tobacco, and electronic cigarettes, which seem to deliver the needed nicotine dose smokers crave, without the deadly smoke toxins.

The main message is clear: It s never too late to quit, and there is no more important step to take to improve your health, to save your life, in fact. So quit now, by whatever means necessary.

By ACSH's Gilbert Ross, M.D. Originally posted Nov. 6, 2012 on