Leading article: Lung cancer: the only way must be down

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The sociology of death is always interesting. The news that the number of women dying from lung cancer has peaked in the UK is significant. Deaths from the same disease among men levelled off two decades ago. Why so?

The explanation lies in smoking. Some 90 per cent of deaths from lung cancer occur in people with a long history of cigarette use. Lung cancer hardly occurred before the advent of the cigarette. In the early days most smokers were men. But as cigarette use fell away after links between smoking and ill-health were established, tobacco companies began to focus the marketing of their product toward women, with advertisements dishonestly implying that "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes were safer.

Because of the long time-lag between smoking and developing cancer, rates among women have continued to increase, decades after they started to fall among men. There was an increase too in adenocarcinoma, the particular type of lung cancer linked to the introduction of filters on cigarettes – which reduced cancers caused by bigger tobacco particles in main lung airways but forced smokers to inhale more deeply, taking smaller particles into finer airways.

Lung cancer rates among women continue to rise in most of Europe, significantly so in France and Spain. But in the UK the latest figures suggest the disease may now have peaked in women. There has been a slight drop in the death rate from 20.57 per 100,000 women in 2007 to 20.33 today.

Despite this fall, experts have warned that the overall reduction could be threatened by the large number of young people smoking – the numbers of teenage girls starting to smoke has been steadily increasing since the late 1980s. Continued vigilance is required from the anti-smoking lobby to prevent the introduction of the "girl-friendly" marketing techniques used in the United States, which include slimline "purse packs" and promotional giveaways of lip balm, mobile phone jewellery and wristbands, all in vivid pink. The challenge is to make sure cancer rates remain on a downward trajectory.

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