Photo by Valentin Ottone
The rates of new lung cancer cases dropped significantly in the United States between 1999 and 2008, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a study that represents fresh progress against the deadliest form of cancer — and a sign that vigorous anti-smoking efforts are paying off — CDC officials documented a drop in lung cancer cases in 35 states among men and in six states among women.
“This is a vindication and an endorsement of the attention and effort that society has focused since we determined 45 years ago that lung cancer is caused by cigarettes,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “It’s taken us a while, but we have been able to turn the tide on smoking in our society.”
According to the CDC, after increasing for years, lung cancer rates among women decreased nationwide between 2006 and 2008.
In California, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, the rates dropped for women between 1999 and 2008. They remained stable in 24 other states and went up slightly in 14 more.
The decreasing numbers correspond most closely with areas where smoking patterns have fallen in recent years. On the West coast, for example, smoking prevalence is lower among both men and women than it is in many other regions, and lung cancer rates are also dropping faster there.
The study found that these states are running “strong, consistent, comprehensive tobacco control programs,” including higher tobacco prices, media campaigns, smoke-free policies, and easily accessible programs and services for those who want to quit, McAfee said. The longer they invest, the greater the savings in smoking-related health care costs.
On the flip side of that equation, a number of states in the southeast have seen “slight increases or stagnant rates in the number of people developing lung cancer,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, director of the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “These are states where we’ve not seen as progressive of tobacco policies for a number of reasons,” he said.
Lung cancer — the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in the United States — is triggered most often by cigarette smoke. But the good news is that lung-cancer related deaths have been shown to drop quickly after declines in smoking rates, sometimes as quickly as five years.
CDC officials compiled the report by analyzing lung cancer data from the agency’s National Program of Cancer Registries and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and Results Program.
“We’re just seeing the beginning of the benefits of these policy interventions that work,” he said. “It can take decades before we see the full results.”
Which is why McAfee and his colleagues say that it’s too soon to celebrate. In the last three years, the same state-level programs that have resulted in this “phenomenal change” have been cut by 30 percent.
“Although this is a very optimistic finding, there’s also a lot of concern. It’s a straightforward correlation that if you’re smoking goes down, lung cancer goes down,” he said. “So if we as a society were to tolerate smoking going back up, we would see these rates going right back up again.”
This post has been updated from its original version.