US women have caught up to men on lung cancer risk

WASHINGTON (AP) - US 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 levelled off in the 1980s for men but is still rising for women.

"It's a massive failure in prevention," said one study leader, Doctor 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 US women who started early in life and continued for decades, long enough for health effects to show up.

The US has more than 35 million smokers - about 20 per cent of men and 18 per cent 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 if 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.

They also wanted to know more about smoking and women. The famous surgeon general's report in 1964 said smoking could cause lung cancer in men, but evidence was lacking in women at the time since relatively few of them had smoked long enough.

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.