woman smoking

(WOMENSENEWS)–American women take note: Mortality rates from breast cancer and heart disease have dropped, but women are now more likely to experience poor mental health, develop diabetes, get chlamydia and commit suicide than their recent predecessors, according to a recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

More alarming still: the life expectancy for low-income, uneducated white women has dropped by five years over the last quarter century, from 78 years in 1990 to 73 in 2008, according to a 2013 study in Health Affairs.

"We have a major problem going on, and we don’t know why this is happening," Steven Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, told a women’s health conference in April in Washington, D.C.

One suspect in this medical mystery may startle women: a decades-ago rise in the rate of smoking that Woolf suggested may now be resulting in a surge of lung cancer. Woolf also cited other possibilities for declines in women’s health, such as increasing prescription opioid use and women’s lower socio-economic status relative to men.

Whatever the cause of the longevity decline among poor, white women, lung cancer is clearly taking a toll. It is now the leading cancer killer of women in the United States and other developed nations, according to a recent study in a leading cancer journal.

In the less developed world breast cancer is still the most deadly form of cancer for women, although lung cancer death rates are rising there too–at least among older women, according to a recent study. In the United States, the five-year survival rate of lung cancer is less than 20 percent, considerably lower than the 90 percent five-year survival rate for breast cancer, according to the American Lung Association.

Danger Overlooked

In the United States, more than 70,000 women are expected to die this year from lung cancer, nearly twice the number of deaths from breast cancer, the American Lung Association says.

Yet few women consider lung cancer a significant danger. Nearly 90 percent of women say breast cancer is a "top-of-mind" concern, but only 1 percent of women say lung cancer is, according to the American Lung Association‘s .

More women are also concerned about ovarian and cervical cancer than lung cancer, the survey finds, even though those diseases too are less prevalent and less lethal than lung cancer.

State and federal lawmakers, meanwhile, have put smoking cessation–once a national priority–on the legislative backburner, according to a by the American Lung Association.

Authors called 2014 a "disappointing year" because little progress was made to improve lung health. The federal government did not increase federal tobacco taxes or give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight over e-cigarettes and other tobacco products, and no states passed comprehensive smoke-free laws or significantly increased tobacco taxes, the report states.

Smoking, the main cause of lung cancer, has plummeted in the United States, from 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 19 percent today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But women born in the 1960s are now entering the age when diagnosis of lung cancer is most common, according to the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund.

"The lung cancer deaths we are seeing today really have to do with smoking trends we saw in the 1970s, when women really started to pick up smoking," Lindsey Torre, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, said in an in HealthDay.

Path-Breaking Report

A public warning against smoking by the in a more than 50 years ago wouldn’t seem like a threat to women’s health. But as it so happened, it was.

That path-breaking report led to a rapid drop in smoking rates among men, who were then far heavier cigarette users than women, according to the CDC. But smoking rates among women rose as tobacco companies launched marketing campaigns targeting them.

The late 1960s saw the rise of pastel-colored packaging of cigarettes and advertising campaigns that suggested that smoking prevents weight gain and empowers women, the CDC report says. Phillip Morris’ 1968 ad campaign for Virginia Slims–a taller, more slender cigarette than others at the time–is a notorious example. Its slogan: "You’ve come a long way, baby."

The campaigns worked–and women are now suffering the aftermath as lung cancer patients.

To raise awareness about the "silent epidemic" of lung cancer in women, the American Lung Association launched a campaign with CVS Health, a national pharmacy retail chain that made headlines when it removed cigarettes from its shelves last year.

"Not only are women disproportionately affected by lung disease," the campaign says on its website, "but they also influence more than 80 percent of health care decisions for their families. By educating women, we will expand our impact and increase the likelihood that women will not only make healthy decisions for themselves, but also for their families–including the men, women and children that they love."

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