More women getting lung cancer surgery as effects of smoking show up in new data

The tobacco industry has aggressively marketed "low" and "light tar" cigarettes to women, which are just as harmful as regular products. Photo: Tamara Voninski
The tobacco industry has aggressively marketed "low" and "light tar" cigarettes to women, which are just as harmful as regular products. Photo: Tamara Voninski

The number of women undergoing lung cancer surgery in Australia is escalating faster than that of men, reflecting the tobacco industry's aggressive marketing of feminised "slim" and "light" products in the 1980s and '90s.

Health experts say this trend serves as a warning to young women who, alarmingly, are smoking more and smoking their first full cigarette at a younger age, compared to young men.

Previously unpublished hospitalisation data reveals a 46.5 per cent increase in women undergoing lung cancer surgery between 2010 and 2015, in contrast to a 30.5 per cent rise for men.

In addition, the number of women dying each year from lung cancer has soared by 36.3 per cent to 3716 deaths in 2016 over the past decade, while the rise is less dramatic for men at 9.3 per cent.

"We saw this big lag period where there used to be lots of men smoking and that started to drop off and then we saw lung cancer really increasing 15 to 20 years later," Sarah White from Cancer Council Victoria said.

"That's exactly what we're seeing with women now, where they took up smoking later and now we see that wave of lung cancers cresting."

While men have generally smoked more than women, the industry heavily targeted women through magazines prior to an advertising ban in 1990, using photos of glamorous models holding slim, long, and "low tar" cigarettes.

This collection of national data has been presented together for the first time on a new interactive website launched by Cancer Australia in the past week, called National Cancer Control Indicators (NCCI).

"That's exactly what we're seeing with women now, where they took up smoking later and now we see that wave of lung cancers cresting."

Sarah White from Cancer Council Victoria

Smoking rates have dramatically tumbled over the years, but young women are bucking the trend. The rate of smoking among 18 to 24-year-old women has increased from 14.8 to 15.1 per cent between 2012 and 2015, while it has fallen for young men from 18.3 per cent to 12.8 per cent.

Dr White, director of Cancer Council's Quit Victoria, said the recent rise in lung cancer surgeries and deaths was a warning to young women that they weren't "bulletproof", as those in the '80s and '90s may have mistakenly thought.

Females are now on average smoking their first full cigarette at 16 years of age, slightly younger than males, most likely influenced by cigarette-puffing models and actors on social media.

"The ads are gone but it hasn't stopped the influence of celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Ruby Rose and people like that in the modelling world who post photos of themselves smoking," she said.

"For young people who smoke, it's hard for them to see into the future and they think they're 'bulletproof', but sadly we're seeing the consequences of those belief decades later."

Lung cancer is now the biggest killer of Australian women, causing 670 more deaths than breast cancer last year.

Dr White pointed to new research showing female smokers are up to 35 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer, and that the risk is higher for women who start smoking as teenagers.

This risk remains for at least 20 years after quitting, the Institute for Cancer Research in the UK wrote in a study published in Breast Cancer Research.

Professor Matthew Peters, a leading respiratory physician in Sydney, said over the past 25 years, the risk of lung cancer had gone down in young men, was reasonably stable in young women, stable in older men, and going up in older women.

"Commencing smoking at a younger age one of the important contributors to lung cancer," he said.

"Lung cancer develops as a function of life, however things in the environment, things in your genetics, smoking, pollutants all contribute to increasing anyone's chance to grow lung cancer."

Cancer Australia said the NCCI website brought together trusted data from 15 "authoritative" sources, to help experts identify interconnections and relationships across cancer control, monitor trends and benchmark internationally.

"It doesn't just tell us what's happened in the past, but also informs where our efforts can be best placed," said Dr Helen Zorbas, chief executive of Cancer Australia.

"Within the next 12 months we will be publishing for the first time, stage data. We don't know the stages of disease that different cancers are diagnosed at, so we will be starting that work with the top five."

Model Bella Hadid, who was widely criticised for smoking with her famous friends at the Met Gala in New York earlier this year, announced she had quit on Instagram.