TUESDAY, June 26, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Although the overall lung cancer rate in the United States has been declining in recent years, new research shows a troubling increase in lung cancer deaths among baby boomer women living in some southern and Midwestern states.
A generation of women reached late adolescence and their early 20s at a time when women's empowerment was on the rise. And a 1968 cigarette campaign tied to that cultural shift, "You've come a long way, baby," marketed Virginia Slims to teenage girls and young women. The advertising -- and the evolving popular culture -- encouraged women to smoke as a sign of their liberation from traditional roles.
Researchers say that this switch in society's attitude about smoking, especially among women, may be responsible for the rise in lung cancer deaths among women born after 1950.
"In the 60s and 70s, there was a sharp increase in the number of girls, not boys, who started to smoke," explained Ahmedin Jemal, vice president of surveillance research for the American Cancer Society and the lead author of a study published June 25 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology .
"These women are now in their 50s, and already we're seeing a sharp rise in deaths from lung cancer in this group. Because it's occurring in people who are young and middle-aged, if they quit now, they can decrease their lung cancer risk by 50 percent as compared to those who continue to smoke," Jemal said.
The researchers tapped a nationwide mortality database from the National Cancer Institute to identify emerging regional state-by-state trends in lung cancer death rates from 1973 through 2007. They were able to pull data related to age, sex and race for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, studying changes in lung cancer death rates among white women in the 23 states that had enough data available to allow analysis.
The research was limited to whites because lung cancer rates vary by ethnicity and data for other ethnicities were hard to come by in many states, the researchers noted.
The research showed geographical differences in death rates across the country. Age-specific lung cancer death rates declined among white women in California, but the rates decreased less dramatically or even increased in some southern and Midwestern states.
California's lung cancer death rates decreased in all age groups younger than 75 starting in the 1990s; for those born after 1950, the death rate is less than a third of that for those born in 1933.
But in Alabama, the lung cancer death rate for women born after 1950 is more than double that for those born in 1933. Similar increasing death rates in women born after the 1950s were found in Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The researchers attribute the higher rates of death from lung cancer in those places to a combination of the states' cultural attitudes about smoking and weak anti-smoking efforts, including low cigarette taxes and few smoking ordinances.
"Some states have done a great deal to curb smoking, and others have done very little," said Jemal, noting that California has been a leader in implementing public policies aimed at reducing smoking.
"This is a really important study," said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, in Washington, D.C. "It shows the importance of smoking cessation efforts and the enormous heterogeneity of anti-smoking efforts from state to state."
"Whatever the reason people smoke or don't smoke, stopping people from smoking is what is most important," Edelman added.
Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Cigarette smoking causes one out of every five deaths each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There's help on quitting smoking at smokefree.gov.