The 21st century hazards of smoking and benefits of stopping

October 27, 2012 / The Lancet / —


Women born around 1940 in countries such as the UK and USA were the first generation in which many smoked substantial numbers of cigarettes throughout adult life. Hence, only in the 21st century can we observe directly the full effects of prolonged smoking, and of prolonged cessation, on mortality among women in the UK.


For this prospective study, 1·3 million UK women were recruited in 1996—2001 and resurveyed postally about 3 and 8 years later. All were followed to Jan 1, 2011, through national mortality records (mean 12 woman-years, SD 2). Participants were asked at entry whether they were current or ex-smokers, and how many cigarettes they currently smoked. Those who were ex-smokers at both entry and the 3-year resurvey and had stopped before the age of 55 years were categorised by the age they had stopped smoking. We used Cox regression models to obtain adjusted relative risks that compared categories of smokers or ex-smokers with otherwise similar never-smokers.


Among UK women, two-thirds of all deaths of smokers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are caused by smoking; smokers lose at least 10 years of lifespan. Although the hazards of smoking until age 40 years and then stopping are substantial, the hazards of continuing are ten times greater. Stopping before age 40 years (and preferably well before age 40 years) avoids more than 90% of the excess mortality caused by continuing smoking; stopping before age 30 years avoids more than 97% of it.