Today is World No Tobacco Day, a day when we could all use a strong reminder just how deadly an impact tobacco has on us worldwide. The newly released Tobacco Atlas has powerful information on just how big of a health crisis we face if we do not act.
We decided to use the opportunity to run a few tobacco-related questions by Thomas J. Glynn, Ph.D., American Cancer Society director of cancer science and trends and international cancer control.
Everyone knows smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. But do we know by how much?
We do. The 2004 Surgeon General’s Report estimated a 23-fold increase in the risk of lung cancer for men, and a 13-fold increase in risk for women, depending upon length of time smoking, amount smoked, etc. We should note, too that smoking also significantly increases the risk of several other cancers, heart attack, stroke, and chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
I heard that there are now more former smokers than active smokers. Is that true, and if so, what can we take from it?
It is true. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of former smokers in the U.S. first surpassed the number of current smokers in 2002, and the gap has increased in the decade since then. Current estimates are that there are 49 million former smokers in the U.S. and 46 million current smokers. The take-home message from this figure is that stopping smoking, while challenging, is certainly possible. Nearly 50 million Americans can testify to that.
As smoking rates declined did we see a concurrent downward curve for lung cancer rates?
Yes. The CDC and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) say it takes about 25 years after a reduction in smoking rates for us to see the resulting drop in lung cancer. That’s because it takes lung cancer that long to develop. So for men in the U.S., whose smoking rates began to drop in the mid-1960’s, lung cancer rates began to decline in the early 1990’s and have continued to decline since then. For women, the timeline is a bit different. Their smoking rates actually peaked later, in the 1970’s, and it was only in the mid-2000s that lung cancer incidence rates began to decline for them. We fully expect those drops to continue to decline. The decline in lung cancer incidence over the past 25 years is one of the great unsung successes in public health history.
I’ve heard it said that it takes 13 years after quitting smoking for your risk of lung cancer to drop to the lowest level it’s going to hit, but that the risk is still slightly higher than that of a non-smoker. Are there specific numbers for that?
Yes. The Mayo Clinic and other research organizations report that cohort studies have indicated that after stopping smoking, lung cancer risk decreases nearly to the level of nonsmokers by 15 years, but that the excess risk persists beyond 16 years for heavier smokers. It’s also important to note that for the average smoker, the risk of heart attack drops to that of a nonsmoker after just one year after quitting. The take-home message here is that stopping smoking at any age is good for health.
For more information on tobacco, and helpful tips to start smokers on the road to better health, see Stay Away from Tobacco on our web site, or call 1-800-227-2345.