In case it wasn't obvious by now, smoking is really bad for you, and recent studies suggest it's even worse than we'd previously thought. Now, a new study out of Australia confirms one more worrying fact: Should smokers continue their nasty habit, as many as two-thirds will die from a smoking-related disease.
More than half a century ago, at a time when many doctors still smoked, Surgeon General Luther Terry dropped something of a bombshell on the American public, saying that smoking causes bronchitis, lung cancer, and was associated with stomach ulcers and cirrhosis. In the last decade, studies have suggested an even worse outlook. A 50-year study of male doctors in the United Kingdom found a three-fold increase in the death rate for those who smoked, which was echoed in a 2013 study that used various subsets of the American public.
After adjusting for several lifestyle and socioeconomic factors, the team found that smokers were about three times more likely to die compared with those who'd never taken a puff.
But those studies weren't particularly representative of the general population, says Emily Banks, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Australian National University, and colleagues. Banks and her colleagues' study is "one of the first" to take a look at smoking using a random, representative sample of people—in this case, more than 200,000 adults living in New South Wales. More important, Banks says, is that their study is "completely independent" of others, with brand new people living in a place that isn't the United States or the U.K.
So what can Australia teach the world? Interestingly, the results of the new study line up closely with those from other major studies conducted in the past decade or so. After adjusting for several lifestyle and socioeconomic factors, the team found that smokers were about three times more likely to die compared with those who'd never taken a puff, consistent with other recent results. After taking into account overall mortality rates in Australia, that means two in three smokers dying from a smoking-related disease.
Rather than making the study irrelevant, Banks says, that consistency is vitally important. In the past, people generally hadn't smoked as long, and some studies suggested as few as one in six would die from smoking-related diseases. The fact that researchers now have access to people who've smoked for decades and are converging on the same number indicates that researchers are on to something—namely, that smoking really is that deadly. Smoking 10 cigarettes a day, Banks says, is equivalent to being morbidly obese, and will kill "up to 1.8 million" Australian smokers and perhaps one billion worldwide.
Still, not all is lost. "It's been a difficult road for Australia," to cut smoking, "but it shows there are public health benefits," Banks says. For those in the U.S., she says, Australia's success with programs like "plain packaging"—which is anything but plain—should give anti-smoking campaigners hope. "It shows what you can achieve with population-level" strategies to end smoking, she says.