Women Smokers Now Face Greater Health Risk

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Among present-day female smokers, the health risk from smoking is 25.7 times higher when compared to non-smokers.
Sabina Dimitriu / Getty Images

Women smokers are at a greater risk than at any time in recent decades from lung cancer and other ailments linked to their tobacco use, according to a study.

The research in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found a marked increase in deaths among female smokers from lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease and other health ailments.

The study of more than 2.2 million adults 55 years and older found that women who smoked in the 1960s had a 2.7 times higher risk of lung cancer than those who never smoked.

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"But among present-day female smokers, that risk is 25.7 times higher when compared to non-smokers," the report said.

The researchers found that the increased risk from smoking has been significant enough to outweigh the effects of medical advances that that have lengthened the lives of the rest of the population over the past half-century.

The study was led by Michael Thun, a physician who recently retired as vice president emeritus of the American Cancer Society,

He said it is worrisome that "the steep increase in risk among female smokers has continued for decades after the serious health risks from smoking were well established."

A proliferation in "light" and "mild" cigarette brands marketed toward women explains at least part of the increase in adverse health consequences, he said.

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Thun said in a statement that "diluted smoke from these cigarettes is inhaled more deeply into the lungs of smokers to maintain the accustomed absorption of nicotine."

His research in the New England Journal of Medicine was paired with study by Prabhat Jha, a physician at St Michael's Hospital which is affiliated with the University of Toronto.

That study found that smokers lose an average of about 10 years over their lifetimes compared to people who have never smoked.

"The findings from these studies have profound implications for many developing countries where cigarette smoking has become entrenched more recently than in the United States," Thun said.

"Together they show that the epidemic of disease and death caused by cigarette smoking increases progressively over many decades, peaking fifty or more years after the widespread uptake of smoking in adolescence."

On a more positive note, Thun's research confirmed that quitting smoking at any age dramatically lowers mortality from all major smoking-related diseases.

He also found that quitting smoking is far more effective than simply reducing the number of cigarettes smoked.

Smokers who kicked the habit by age 40 avoided nearly all of the excess smoking-related mortality, the researchers found.

"The good news is the benefits of smoking cessation occur much more quickly" than damages from tobacco use, "and are substantial at any age," Thun said.