Risking cancer just to stay thin

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The Independent Online
Lung cancer is set to overtake breast cancer as the biggest cancer killer of women, the UK's leading epidemiologist warned yesterday, as new data highlighted a dramatic rise in the number of young women who smoke.

Health educators say the cult of the supermodel is largely to blame for the increase as more girls use cigarettes for weight control - nicotine is an appetite suppressant - and to relieve stress.

The teenage wannabes copy thin, glamorous role models such as Kate Moss who is rarely seen without a cigarette off the catwalk, and who allegedly has no qualms about taking part in shoots which use cigarettes as props.

Earlier this year, Ms Moss and her fellow model Stephanie Seymour caused an uproar in America after appearing naked - and smoking - in Playboy.

The Health Education Authority yesterday reported a 5 per cent rise in smoking among 16- to 24-year-old women between 1994 and 1996. A third of this age group now smokes.

This trend is a result of more smokers among the 11-to-15 age group who are continuing to smoke into young adulthood, and a simultaneous increase in "late starters". Just under 30 per cent of 16- to 24-year-old female smokers took up smoking after the age of 16.

Traditionally, many women quit smoking or try to give it up when they start families in their late twenties and thirties. and prevalence starts to fall. But the HEA data says that around 30 per cent of pregnant women are continuing to smoke.

Professor Sir Richard Doll, the scientist who first established the link between lung cancer and smoking, and who presented the new data, said that smoking-related deaths among women have been gradually rising while those among men have fallen. This is largely the result of the historic patterns of smoking with women taking up the habit decades later than men.

However, the new figures for young women have alarmed doctors because they suggest that the long-term health effects of smoking will persist for decades to come in women, despite intense health education efforts.

Sir Richard warned that if present trends continue, more women will be dying from lung cancer than breast cancer within five years. This is already the case in some cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool.

Five women smokers die every hour from diseases caused or exacerbated by their habit, about 42,500 annually, and up 11,000 on previous statistics published in 1991. The figure for men is 77,500.

Overall, the number of smoking related deaths annually has increased by 10,000, from 110,000 in 1991 to at least 120,000 per year. The new projections are based on US data from a long-term study of 1 million smokers.

The HEA's "Quit Smoking for Life" campaign begins on radio and television on 30 December with a focus on women.