Lung diseases kill one in every 10 Europeans, new figures suggest, and the proportion of deaths caused by the diseases in the UK is the highest of any European nation.
A comprehensive study of mortality rates across the continent, carried out by the European Respiratory Society (ERS), concluded that respiratory diseases cost nearly a million lives and 400 billion euros every year.
Conditions including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia and tuberculosis will account for one in every five deaths worldwide by 2030, the World Health Organisation estimates.
The ERS said that the burden of the disease fell heaviest in Europe’s wealthier nations – strongly indicating that historically high smoking rates in better-off societies are taking their toll. It was estimated that at least a half of the entire socioeconomic cost of respiratory disease could be attributed to smoking, the ERS said.
Belgium and Denmark had the highest mortality rates from lung conditions, with 117 deaths per 100,000 members of the population in a year, followed by Ireland, with 114, and the UK, with 112. However, the UK and Ireland came bottom of the table for the proportion of total deaths caused by respiratory diseases.
The ERS said their figures were probably a significant underestimate, as reliable data on certain conditions in some countries was not available.
The British Lung Foundation said that, in the UK, respiratory diseases probably accounted for a quarter of all deaths and warned that funding for research and treatments for the conditions was woefully lacking.
“Although lung disease kills up to one in four people in the UK, it regrettably doesn’t receive the same level of priority when it comes to prevention and treatment,” said the BLF’s Professor Richard Hubbard. “It is telling that when NHS England created the new ‘Strategic Clinical Networks’ for improving health services last year, cancer, mental health, and cardiovascular disease were all included, but respiratory disease was not.
“Investment in lung cancer research totals around a third of that allocated to breast cancer, half that allocated bowel cancer and less than half that allocated to leukaemia, even though it currently kills more people per year than all three put together.”
While the number of smokers in high-death rate countries such as Denmark and the UK have fallen substantially since the 1970s, the long-term effects of historically high rates continue to manifest in cases of lung cancer and COPD today, the ERS said. By contrast Finland, with its highly active programme targeting respiratory illness, has the lowest death rate from respiratory conditions – 54 per 100,000 people.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the smoking charity ASH said the ERS study was a “stark reminder of the shocking scale of harm caused by smoking”.
“The UK still has one of the highest rates of death from respiratory disease in the world because of the legacy of the high rates of smoking in years gone by,” she said.
“It’s vitally important that countries implement the measures contained in the [World Health Organisation’s] Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and resist pressures from the tobacco industry to weaken or undermine this process.”
Professor Eugene Milne, director for adult health and wellbeing at Public Health England said: “We’re most concerned about smoking rates which amount for an enormous proportion of the burden of the disease, in particular for the high rates of lung cancer.
“At the moment we’re seeing a very encouraging decline in smoking rates. Since the smoke free legislation was introduced in 2007 we’ve seen a fall in asthma admissions, but evidence suggests that it could take several years for the decline to work through and show up in statistics for other forms of lung disease… We haven’t seen the last of the impact of old habits.”