50-Year Trends in Smoking Related Deaths

Smoking related deaths are now equal in men and women and COPD is on the rise

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Too many people have died from smoking-related illnesses in the past 50 years. But there is good news: quitting smoking starts the healing process and immediately begins to reduce the risks of smoking-related disease.

A recent study looked at seven studies over the past 50 years for information on deaths from smoking-related illnesses in the US. The researchers discovered death rates for women have now caught up to those for men. They also found that smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has increased significantly since the 1980s.

"Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW."

Michael J. Thun, MD, from the Department of Epidemiology at the American Cancer Society (ACS) in Atlanta, GA, led colleagues from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Harvard Medical School and various other research centers to investigate smoking-related deaths in the US over the past 50 years.

Due to the large nature of this study, which included seven different studies, groups of smokers were broken down into three groups. The first group was made up of 183,060 men and 335,922 women who were at least 55 years of age at the time of follow up between 1959 and 1965.

The second group was made up of 293,592 men and 452,893 women enrolled in the study in 1982 and followed through 1988.

The third group was made up of five of the seven studies conducted between 2000 and 2010.

Analysis of these groups provided four main conclusions:

  1. Risk of death from smoking has increased in women to equal the same risk as men. Specifically, smoking-related deaths were from lung cancer, COPD, heart disease and stroke. The authors noted the risk of death from lung cancer in male smokers has evened out since the 1980s, but lung cancer deaths in women have continued to increase.
  2. For men aged 55 to 74 years and women aged 60 to 74 years, all deaths combined were found to be three times higher in smokers than in people who had never smoked.
  3. The rate of COPD in both male and female smokers has continued to increase. The rate of COPD in men who have never smoked has dropped over the years. Authors proposed that while the average number of cigarettes smoked per day has decreased, genetic changes in tobacco, the introduction of perforated filters and more porous wrapping papers in cigarettes have caused smokers to inhale deeper over the years. This deeper inhalation by more recent smokers has resulted in worse damage to their lungs than to smokers in the first group. 
  4. Based on all of the research, the authors said quitting smoking before the age of 40 can eliminate nearly all excess risks for smoking-related deaths. And quitting smoking at any age can dramatically lower death risk for all smoking-related illnesses.

Limitations of the study included the lack of diversity in the participants. Most were white, 50 years of age or older and born between 1870 and 1954.

“The risk of death from cigarette smoking continues to increase among women and the increased risks are now nearly identical for men and women, as compared with persons who have never smoked,” the authors concluded.

“The risks among male smokers have plateaued at the high levels of the 1980s, except for a continuing, unexplained increase in deaths from COPD,” they noted.

Deaths from smoking-related illnesses have equalized in men and women. Smoking-related deaths can be avoided by quitting smoking, and the sooner the better.

This study was published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, the National Hearth, Lung, and blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health provided support for this project. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 22, 2013
Last Updated:
January 23, 2013