UK’s female smokers drive death rate for lung cancer in Europe

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Death rates from lung cancer among women in Europe will exceed those for breast cancer for the first time this year – driven by high rates of smoking in the UK, researchers warn today.

Experts say rates of cancer deaths will decline overall, except for pancreatic cancer for men and women and lung cancer in women, due to better treatments.

They say numbers of lung cancer deaths among women are being driven by high rates among women in the UK and Poland.

British women started smoking in large numbers during the Second World War, while in most of the rest of Europe it only become popular from the late 1960s, they claim.

The predictions, in the journal Annals of Oncology today, reveal deaths rates from lung cancer in women will increase in 2015 by nine per cent compared to 2009, putting them above death rates from breast cancer, which have fallen 10 per cent over the period.

Study author Prof Carlo La Vecchia, of the University of Milan, said death rates among British women from lung cancer were expected to be 21 per 100,000 – 50 per cent higher than the European average – and more than double those in Spain where deaths run at eight per 100,000.

Prof La Vecchia said: “UK and Polish women, particularly UK women, have long had much higher lung cancer rates than most other European countries. This is due to the fact that British women started smoking during the Second World War, while in most other EU countries women started to smoke after 1968.

“It is worrying that female lung cancer rates are not decreasing in the UK, but this probably reflects the fact that there was an additional rise in smoking prevalence in the UK as well in the post-1968 generation – those born after 1950.”

The study predicts there will be a total of 1,360,000 deaths from cancer in the 28 EU member states in 2015 – a fall of 7.5 per cent for men and six per cent for women since 2009. It is an overall fall of 26 per cent in men and 21 per cent in women since the peak of cancer death rates in 1988 – a saving of 325,000 lives this year.

In the six largest countries in the EU, including the UK, death rates from prostate cancer will show the biggest fall since 2009 of 12 per cent. Among women, breast and colorectal cancer rates will fall by nine or 10 per cent.

“The favourable predictions for breast and colorectal cancer are largely due to improved detection and management of these common cancers,” said Prof La Vecchia. “The key feature of prostate cancer deaths is that it is likely to decline further across the EU, and in all age groups, including the elderly.”

Death rates from pancreatic cancer are predicted to rise by four per cent in men and five per cent in women since 2009. Tobacco, obesity, diabetes, high alcohol intake and a family history have all been linked to the illnesses, but explain less than 40 per cent of cases.

Study co-author, Fabio Levi, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, said: “While the downward trends in overall cancer death rates is good news, smoking still remains the greatest cause of cancer deaths in the EU.

“For instance, smoking probably accounts for 15 to 25 per cent of all pancreatic cancers, 85 to 90 percent of all lung cancers, and is implicated in a number of other cancers too.

“The differences in death rates between European countries remains a concern, with higher rates in the member states that joined most recently, such as the central and eastern European countries.”