Four out of five adults with long-term lung disease – which is usually caused by smoking – do not know they have it.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema goes undiagnosed in 80 per cent of people who suffer from it according to a new report by Cancer Research UK published online today in Thorax.

This condition is strongly associated with lung cancer because both arise from long-term damage to lung tissue caused by smoking. Lung cancer patients very often have COPD.

Researchers studied the results of saliva and lung function tests and questionnaires from 8215 adults over 35 years old. They were able to identify 1093 people with COPD based on impaired lung function but more than 80 per cent of those with the disease said they had not received diagnosis of any kind. And even among those with severe COPD more than half had not been diagnosed.

More than one third of those with COPD were still smoking and a further 35 per cent were ex-smokers. Sufferers were more likely to be older, manual workers, male and more socio-economically deprived than those without the disease.

The study found that smokers who had COPD showed higher levels of dependence on cigarettes and smoked more cigarettes a day than smokers without the disease. But those with COPD were no more motivated to quit than smokers without the disease.

Study author Professor Robert West, director of tobacco studies at Cancer Research UK’s health behavioural unit, said: “It is crucial to identify smokers with COPD and take urgent action to support them in stopping smoking because the most effective way of halting the progression of the disease is to stop smoking.

“Many smokers feel that they will ‘get away with it’ and not be affected in a serious way by their habit. For smokers with COPD that doubt is removed. Every day they continue to smoke will make things worse.

“The US Lung Health study has already shown that smokers with mild to moderate COPD can be helped to stop smoking with appropriate treatment and this improves lung function and mortality rates.

“Symptoms of COPD are having a smokers’ cough or being a bit breathless on exertion. But many smokers think these are “normal” symptoms of smoking and do not realise that they can be the beginnings of a disease which, in many cases, will leave them disabled or dead if they do not stop smoking. It only requires a simple lung function test to find out whether they have COPD and this can be done by their GP.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “Smokers run the biggest risk of COPD but we also know it can affect people who have never smoked as well as those who have given up smoking. And there is a real need to increase public awareness of this insidious disease.

“Diagnosis of COPD can be done at primary care level. And smokers who are diagnosed at an early stage of the disease would benefit most from quitting smoking and should be targeted in the surgery. GPs can help patients to quit through smoking cessation clinics and nicotine replacement therapy.”


For media enquiries please contact Sally Staples in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300, or the out of hours duty press officer on 07050 264059.


In the UK, it is estimated that 13.3 per cent of people over 35 may have developed features of COPD.

Between 600,000 and 900,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with COPD. This study suggests that there could be around 3.7 million people who actually have the disease.

COPD is the sixth most common cause of death in England and Wales killing more than 30,000 a year.

Lung cancer kills more than 33,000 people each year in the UK. Cigarette smoking has been identified as the single most important cause of preventable disease and premature death in the UK.

Overall, one third of all deaths from cancer, including around 80 per cent of lung cancer deaths, are linked to tobacco smoking.

Half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle . Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk invites people to take action in five key areas:

  • Stop smoking
  • This is the best present you will ever give yourself. We know it’s hard but support and effective treatments are available to help you quit smoking or chewing tobacco. Give up now and greatly reduce your risk of cancer.

  • Stay in shape
  • Cut your cancer risk by keeping a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of several cancers. Try to balance the energy you take in from food with the energy you burn through activity. Just 30 minutes five days a week of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, gardening or swimming will keep you healthy.

  • Eat and drink healthily
  • Limit alcohol and maintain a healthy diet to reduce your risk. Alcohol increases your risk of certain cancers, more so if you also smoke. Try to limit the amount you drink. Aim for a healthy balanced diet, including plenty of fruit and vegetables – at least five portions a day.

  • Be SunSmart
  • Protect yourself from the sun and harmful UV. Cover up and take care not to burn. Watch moles for any changes and get unusual skin blemishes checked out by the doctor. Avoid using sunbeds.

  • Look after number one
  • Know your body, be aware of any changes and contact your doctor if you notice anything unusual. Go for screening when invited – it could save your life.