While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 43 million Americans continue to maintain a smoking habit, the number people who smoke in the U.S. has steadily declined over the last 50 years. Not so coincidentally, as the number of Americans who smoke continues to drop, so has the rate of lung cancer in the U.S., according to the results of a new study.

According to the CDC, lung cancer rates dropped between 2.6 percent each year in men between 2005 and 2009 – decreasing from 87 to 78 cases per 100,000 – and dropped 1.1 percent – decreasing from 57 to 54 cases per 100,000 – in women during the same period of time.

This marks encouraging news for researchers, as lung cancer rates for women had previously been on the rise.

While early detection and prevention methods have contributed to this decrease, researchers state the primary cause of this decline is due to fewer people regularly smoking cigarettes.

The results of this latest study were published in the January edition of the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly.

A Positive Change

As the number of people who smoke continues to decline since the habit reached the height of its popularity during the 1960s, researchers have finally noted a positive change in the rates of lung cancer. Researchers point to the increased control of tobacco – including higher prices and more smoke free zones, such as in restaurants and bars – as one of the primary reasons why number of adults smoking has continued to drop.

However, despite laws designed to limit access and available smoking areas, nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. continue to smoke. Though public health officials are encouraged that the number of youths who smoke has dropped to under 10 percent.

Trying to make a dent in the number of adults who continue to smoke may require hitting smokers where it hurts the most, their wallet. According to researchers, increasing the price of cigarettes has shown to be the most productive way of reducing the number of adults who maintain the habit, especially among those between the ages of 18 to 30.

New York and Illinois have led the way when it comes to making the cost of cigarettes prohibitively expensive, as both states maintain an average cost per pack of over 1.50.

Not every state has gotten behind increasing the taxation on cigarettes, however, as 19 states feature an average price per pack of under $6. Only one state, Kentucky, averages less than $5 a pack ($4.96).

Still, this ranks as very good news – according to researchers at the American Cancer Society – as for most age groups, lung cancer rates continue to decline, especially among men. Researchers account the lag in decline for female smokers as a reflection of the later uptake of smoking for women culturally in the U.S.

Smoking was predominantly a male habit during the 50s and 60s in the U.S., but the 1970s saw a huge upsurge in the number of female smokers, fueled primarily by the increase of targeted advertising by big tobacco companies. Virginia Slims – one of the first brands of cigarettes marketed directly to women – was first test marked in 1968 by Phillip Morris before hitting shelves nationwide.

This increase in the number of female smokers caused lung cancer rates to remain steady among women between the ages of 45 to 54 who were teenagers during this time.

The Fight Continues

While encouraged by the decline in both lung cancer rates and number of smokers in the U.S., researchers caution that more effort is needed to further reduce the number of Americans that smoke.

Despite the long-term health consequence associated with smoking – conditions that include an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, gum disease and tooth loss, high blood pressure and cancer – many adults find themselves unable to quit smoking once hooked on the habit.

Health experts have longed argued for the increased availability of cessation programs for adults trying to quit the habit who cannot afford expensive aids like nicotine patches or gum. Advocates for the increased availability of these types of programs point to the millions of dollars a year states receive from tobacco revenue as a source of funding. However, studies have shown that only 2.4 percent of the money received from taxed tobacco sales goes towards control and prevention.

While the gains against lung cancer remain encouraging, the disease still ranks as the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. and the second most commonly diagnosed form of cancer.

John Nickelbottom is a freelance health and science writer.

Image: By Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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