Smoking Decreases Average Lifespan By 5-10 Years
> 6/11/2008 4:04:42 PM

A new National Cancer Institute study, updating demographically sorted American survey data, further clarifies the depth of the physical damage caused by years of smoking. Not only will a smoker's quality of life eventually be compromised by the habit, his or her lifespan will be 5 to 10 years shorter on average. Long-term smokers should take special note of this report as mortality rates increase with exposure. Smoking is the country’s number one cause of preventable death, and that fact gains urgency when considering that smoking rates are higher in most of the world than they are in the United States. These new, simplified stats may help reinforce that point to the billions of smokers around the world who could greatly improve their lives if they would only quit today.

55-year old male smokers face mortality risks as high as non-smokers who are 10 years older, meaning that the very act of being a smoker greatly increases one’s chances of dying from multiple causes. The 10-year number is not new, having been declared in 2004 by the same group of British researchers who first definitively linked tobacco smoke to lung cancer 50 years earlier. In their 5-decade longitudinal study, these scientists found that one-half of persistent smokers were eventually killed by their habit and that 25% of them died before the age of 70. When comparable American stats, drawn from the more than 1.2 million individuals who participated in the National Cancer Institute’s longitudinal 1982 Cancer Prevention Study are updated to include separate categories for current and former smokers and to reflect the latest census-based mortality data, the numbers only further confirm the obvious: smokers face a far greater risk of premature death, and the cancers that smoking can create include not only those of the lungs but also the larynx, the esophagus, the pharynx, and the bladder.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of smoking's horrific influence is illustrated by the leading causes of death for middle-aged American men. Accidents are the leading cause of death for non-smoking men under the age of 45, and after the age of 50 heart disease grows exponentially more common than any other cause of death. For smokers over 60, however, lung cancer easily trumps even heart disease as the number one cause of mortality. The chances of an older-than-60 smoker dying of lung cancer are more than 10 times greater than the chances of death by colon or prostate cancer. Lung cancer is, overall the most fatal variety, killing more Americans than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined. These numbers arise almost entirely from smoking as 87% of lung cancers are caused by tobacco. Lung cancer is also a very swift killer: of the nearly 200,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with lung cancer in the next 12 months, almost 90% will be dead within 5 years.

One of the reasons the disease is so overwhelmingly fatal is that symptoms often do not present until it has entered its advanced stages. Chemo treatments may be successful when cancers are discovered early in their development, but only 15% of lung cancers are discovered before they spread to other parts of the body. Tests of a new advanced X-ray technology called a spiral CT scan reveal that, while the scans may reduce the likelihood that a patient will die due to lung cancer by as much as 28%, they only reduce the overall rates of premature death by 4% among long-time smokers. The studies are still helpful in reinforcing the fact that smokers should undergo routine scans to detect potential lung cancers, but their numbers do not paint an encouraging picture. The only way to reduce the risks of death by tobacco is to quit smoking immediately and completely. One cannot undo the damage that cigarettes inflict on the cardiovascular system, but smokers’ mortality rates improve considerably if they successfully quit. Those who kick the habit before the age of 50 cut their chances of dying over the following 15 years in half. Yet many ex-smokers, even those who’ve gone without cigarettes for a decade or more, still die of lung cancer and other complications created or complicated by that deadly habit.

All these numbers, indisputable though they might be, are still not enough to get the message across with the force that it demands. The goal of this study was to simplify the data, but researchers call for “more individualized communication strategies, delivered interactively,” a statement which implies heavy internet efforts on the part of the National Cancer Institute and other government agencies. We hope that such efforts would be vigorously supported by the work of major commercial advertisers. Telling current smokers and, most importantly, prospective smokers that the habit exponentially increases the likelihood of lung cancer and early death is simply not enough. We need to tell them how quickly and dramatically it can affect and inevitably end their lives. Too many smokers have already died well before their time, and the problem reaches well beyond the United States and its allies in the west. The Cancer Prevention Study estimates that 250 million of the 1.25 billion citizens of the developing world will eventually die due to smoking. We clearly have our work cut out for us.

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