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Study reveals tobacco’s 6.3 million death toll

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by Cancer Research UK | News

5 March 2005

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Tobacco has killed 6.3 million people – close to the current population of London1 – across the UK during the last half century.

The new figures – released by Cancer Research UK days before No Smoking Day (Wednesday 9 March) – come from Sir Richard Peto, Professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Oxford.

The statistics include new data on the very high death toll paid by Scotland.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.

Between 1950 and 2000, 42 per cent of deaths in middle age (35-69) in UK men were caused by smoking, peaking in the 1960s when tobacco caused half of all deaths in middle-aged men.

Over the same time period, tobacco caused 16 per cent of deaths in middle age in UK women, peaking in the late 1980s when smoking caused about one quarter of all deaths in middle-aged women.

With respect to cancer, smoking continues to cause proportionally more cancer deaths in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Although the number of people who smoke is now decreasing north and south of the border, in the year 2000 smoking still caused 42 per cent of deaths among Scottish men from cancer, compared with 35 per cent in England and Wales. In women, smoking caused 28 per cent of deaths from cancer in Scotland, compared with 20 per cent in England and Wales.

The story is much the same for vascular diseases – in England nearly one in five premature deaths2 from heart and circulatory disease in women in 2000 were caused by smoking, but in Scotland, this figure soared to around one in three.

The new statistics also contain some good news. The proportion of deaths in middle age in UK men attributed to smoking fell from a high of 48 per cent in 1965 to 25 per cent in 2000. In women that proportion fell from a high of 24 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent in 2000.

These numbers are still falling, chiefly because many people have stopped smoking.

Sir Richard Peto, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford, says: “A lot of people have stopped smoking, which has led to rates of tobacco deaths falling faster in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

“The proportion of deaths in middle-aged men caused by tobacco in the UK has fallen from about half 40 years ago to approximately a quarter now. The proportion of UK middle-aged women killed by smoking has fallen from about a quarter 20 years ago to about a fifth now.”

These statistics re-emphasise the benefits of quitting. Stopping at age 50 halves risk of dying of a tobacco related disease, and stopping at 30 avoids almost all of it.

Sir Richard adds: “On average, those who continue to smoke lose 10 years of life but stopping smoking at ages 60, 50, 40 or 30 gains 3, 6, 9 or the full 10 years of life expectancy. Of those who continue to smoke, half will be killed by their habit.”

Maura Gillespie, Head of Public Affairs at the British Heart Foundation, says: “These shocking statistics illustrate the devastating impact of smoking on the lives of people across the country. Stopping smoking is the single most important thing any smoker can do to stave off heart disease and seize back years of life.

Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, says: “This unique study has played a crucial role in our understanding of the links between smoking, disease and prevention. It shows the value of long-term investment in clinical research to provide accurate information about health and disease prevention. With this information, people can then make positive choices to improve their health.”

Cancer Research UK’s Director of Tobacco Control, Jean King, says: “These new statistics are startling. The fact that tobacco’s death toll over the past 50 years equates to nearly the population of London is a graphic illustration of the devastation smoking causes. Smoking bereaves thousands of families every year. And it damages our economy by killing one of our greatest resources – people.

“But there is also good news. The UK has seen the world’s most dramatic decrease in tobacco deaths. In part this is due to more people wanting to quit and successfully doing so.

“Sir Richard Peto’s earlier work with Sir Richard Doll has demonstrated that quitting can greatly reduce the risk of dying from a smoking-related illness.

“Next week’s No Smoking Day gives current smokers the chance to seek support and to quit.”