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The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Today's figures illustrate the major benefits of giving up smoking"
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Professor Sir Richard Doll
"We need much more public education"
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Wednesday, 2 August, 2000, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
UK lung cancer deaths halved

The drive to help smokers give up the habit has led to a 50% decrease in the number of lung cancer deaths in the UK since 1965.

A major study has found that the UK has registered the largest drop in the number of premature deaths from lung cancer in the world.

This is at a time when world-wide deaths from tobacco-related illness are increasing.

The study also found that quitting smoking at any age can signficantly reduce the risk of disease.

Tobacco deaths over the next 50 years will be affected much more by the number of adults who manage to stop than by the number of adolescents who start smoking

Professor Sir Richard Peto, Imperial Cancer Research Fund

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, has been carried out by a team led by Sir Richard Doll, whose work 50 years ago first linked smoking to lung cancer in the UK.

The 1950 study compared the smoking habits of 1,465 people with lung cancer and 1,465 without the disease.

The new study compares the smoking habits of 982 people with lung cancer and 3185 without it.

Because so many smokers have stopped, the new study can assess the effects of prolonged cessation.

It finds that, among men who continue to smoke, 16% will die from lung cancer before age 75 (unless they die of something else first).

But, for those who stop at age 50 this risk is only 6%, and for those who stop at age 30 it is less than 2%.

The UK had among the worst lung cancer death rates in the world in 1950 - but has had the biggest decrease since then.

The research reveals that half of all cigarette smokers will eventually be killed by tobacco if they do not quit.

The impact of not starting
If the proportion of young adult smokers were to be halved by 2020, it would avoid hundreds of millions of the deaths from tobacco after 2050
It would, however, avoid almost none of the 150 million deaths from tobacco in the first quarter of the century

However, even the smokers who stop in middle age reduce significantly their risk of tobacco-related premature death, and those who stop before middle age are at little higher risk than non-smokers.

Professor Doll said: "In 1950 80% of the men and 40% of the women in Britain smoked, and tobacco deaths were increasing rapidly.

"Nowadays, among people over the age of 50 there are twice as many ex-cigarette smokers as cigarette smokers, and tobacco deaths are decreasing rapidly.

"But, smoking is still the biggest cause of premature death in Britain."

There have been 6 million deaths from tobacco in Britain over the past 50 years, of which 3 million were deaths in middle age (35-69).

Those killed by tobacco in middle age lost, on average, more than 20 years of life.

Impact of quitting
A 50% world-wide reduction in cigarette consumption per adult by 2020 would prevent up to 30 million tobacco deaths in the first quarter of the century, and about 150 million in the second quarter

Professor Sir Richard Peto, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Oxford unit and co-author of the new report, said: "There are still 10 million smokers in Britain, and about 5 million will be killed by tobacco if they don't stop.

"Tobacco deaths over the next 50 years will be affected much more by the number of adults who manage to stop than by the number of adolescents who start smoking."

However, while people quit smoking in the UK, in many developing countries the habit is catching on fast.

World-wide, there were about 100 million tobacco deaths in the 20th century, but if current smoking patterns continue there will be about 1 billion in the 21st century.

Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health, said: "No-one should ever think it's too late to quit, smoking isn't a one way street ending in an inevitable early and agonising death. People can take control and reduce their risks very substantially and very quickly by giving up at any age."

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See also:

02 Aug 00 | Health
A global smoking battle
19 Nov 98 | Health
China's cigarette threat
19 Nov 98 | Health
UK shows value of curbing smoking
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