The uptake of smoking among women is also reflected in the statistics on oral cancer released by the Cancer Research Campaign. Fifty years ago, the disease caused five times more deaths in men. Last year, the mortality rate ratio was less than two to one. There were 2,000 new cases last year and 900 deaths, indicating that the disease is on the increase.
Professor Gordon McVie, the CRC's scientific director, said: 'What we have here is a cancer which ranks third in the developing world and eighth in the USA and Europe, and yet the tragedy is that in most cases it can be prevented. The benefits of cutting down on fags and booze are well- documented but until people start heeding the warnings we can only save lives by early detection and therefore less radical treatment.'
Heavy smoking is defined as more than 40 cigarettes a day for 20 or more years, and heavy drinking as more than 15 pints of beer or 30 glasses of wine or spirits a week. Tobacco and alcohol act on the tissues of the lip, tongue, mouth and throat to increase the risk of cancer. Scientists believe that ultra-violet light and a diet low in vitamins A and C may also be implicated in the development of the disease.
The incidence is higher in Scotland and there is a distinct 'North-South' divide in England and Wales.
Often a dentist is the first person to detect a problem, the campaign said. Anyone who develops a lump or discoloured patch in the mouth or throat should visit a GP immediately.