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Environ Health Perspect. 1995 Nov; 103(Suppl 8): 143–148.
PMCID: PMC1518964
Research Article

The changing epidemiology of smoking and lung cancer histology.


In 1950, the first large-scale epidemiological studies demonstrated that lung cancer is causatively associated with cigarette smoking, a finding subsequently confirmed by the Royal College of Physicians in London, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the World Health Organization. Although cigarette consumption has gradually decreased in the United States from a high of about 3800 cigarettes per adult per year in 1965 to about 2800 cigarettes in 1993, death from lung cancer has reached a high among males at the rate of 74.9/100,000/year and among females at the rate of 28.5. However, in the younger cohorts, the lung cancer death rate is decreasing in both men and women. In this overview we discuss the steeper increase during recent decades of lung adenocarcinoma incidence compared with squamous cell carcinoma of the lung. In 1950, the ratio of these two major types of lung cancer in males was about 1:18; today it is about 1:1.2-1.4. This overview discusses two concepts that are regarded as contributors to this change in the histological types of lung cancer. One factor is the decrease in average nicotine and tar delivery of cigarettes from about 2.7 and 38 mg in 1955 to 1.0 and 13.5 mg in 1993, respectively. Other major factors for the reduced emission of smoke relate to changes in the composition of the cigarette tobacco blend and general acceptance of cigarettes with filter tips; the latter constitute 97% of all cigarettes currently sold. However, smokers of low-yield cigarettes compensate for the low delivery of nicotine by inhaling the smoke more deeply and by smoking more intensely; such smokers may be taking up to 5 puffs/min with puff volumes up to 55 ml. Under these conditions, the peripheral lung is exposed to increased amounts of smoke carcinogens that are suspected to lead to lung adenocarcinoma. Among the important changes in the composition of the tobacco blend of the U.S. cigarette is a significant increase in nitrate content (0.5% to 1.2-1.5%), which raises the yields of nitrogen oxides and N-nitrosamines in the smoke. Furthermore, the more intense smoking by the consumers of low-yield cigarettes increases N-nitrosamines in the smoke 2- to 3-fold. Among the N-nitrosamines is 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK), a powerful lung carcinogen in animals that is exclusively formed from nicotine. This organ-specific tobacco-specific nitrosamine (TSNA) induces adenocarcinoma of the lung. All of these factors, the more intense smoking, the deeper inhalation of the smoke, and the increased yields of N-nitrosamines in the smoke of low-yield cigarettes, are considered major contributors to the drastic increase in lung adenocarcinoma among cigarette smokers in recent years. This overview also discusses the differences in the major lung cancer types in female compared with male smokers as well as the likely underlying factors for increased lung cancer risk among African Americans compared with that among white Americans. Although the only sure way to prevent smoking-related diseases is giving up the tobacco habit, there must be a measure of protection for those who cannot accomplish this. Therefore, setting upper permissible limits of tar levels for the smoke of U.S. cigarettes, similar to strategies already taken in Western Europe, should be considered.

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Selected References

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