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It can be easy to think that we’ve won the fight against tobacco. Rates of smoking have plummeted since the 1960s. Most restaurants, bars, and workplaces across the country are now largely smoke-free. And many of us may have trouble coming up with a single family member or close friend who smokes.
Yet, the reality is that tobacco remains a persistent and insidious problem. Over 40 million adult Americans still smoke. That’s 18 percent of the population, and rates can vary wildly, with some groups of people in the single digits and others closer to 50 percent. Smoking rates in adults with advanced college degrees hovers around 6 percent, while rates in those with GEDs is over 40 percent. Smoking rates break across income as well, with those making more money smoking at significantly lower rates than those making less.
Now, a new paper published today in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that the ill-effects of tobacco likely reach well beyond what we’ve typically understood. It’s estimated that in the United States there are approximately 480,000 deaths per year from the 21 broad diseases said to be caused by smoking. This new study by Carter et al pulls together data from five large cohort studies and reveals that a number of additional categories of diseases should likely be included in the smoking mortality estimates – things like breast cancer, prostate cancer, infections, and kidney failure. When these diseases are taken into account, the number of deaths each year in the United States from smoking balloon by an additional 60,000 to 120,000 deaths.
Cancer News in Context’s Graham Colditz, MD, DrPh writes in an accompanying editorial that:
A total of 60,000 excess deaths is a number that by itself would have an important public health impact, since it is in line with annual deaths in the United States from excessive alcohol intake or low fruit and vegetable intake.
When combined with the existing estimates of smoking-related deaths it becomes abundantly clear that while there have been great successes in tobacco control there is still a great deal of work to accomplish. Colditz continues in the editorial to highlight the complexities of tobacco use in society and that successful efforts to curb use and aid smoking cessation will take wide-ranging efforts that cut across issues of policy and healthcare, among others.
He concludes by reaffirming the need to keep up the vigorous fight against tobacco – not only for society and for the United States, but for individuals and for other countries as well:
Tobacco control must be our highest priority here and globally to advance population health, to reduce economic burden, and to extend years of health and productive life for all citizens.
Brian D. Carter, M.P.H., Christian C. Abnet, Ph.D., Diane Feskanich, Sc.D., Neal D. Freedman, Ph.D., Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., Cora E. Lewis, M.D., Judith K. Ockene, Ph.D., Ross L. Prentice, Ph.D., Frank E. Speizer, M.D., Michael J. Thun, M.D., and Eric J. Jacobs, Ph.D.
N Engl J Med 2015; 372:631-640
Graham A. Colditz, M.D.
N Engl J Med 2015; 372:665-666