Never Too Late: Quitting Smoking at Any Age Slashes Cancer Risk

    Quitting cigarettes at any age greatly reduces your risk of cancer, according to a major new study. Its findings should be used to encourage anyone who believes it’s “too late.”

    Smoking is the world’s single biggest cause of cancer, contributing to at least 14 other types besides lung cancer.

    “Regardless of age, quitting smoking has been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancer, especially lung cancer, with early cessation before middle age leading to significant reductions,” lead study author Dr. Jin-Kyoung Oh told the Guardian.

    The research, conducted at the National Cancer Center near Seoul, South Korea, and published in Jama Network Open, investigated medical data from almost 3 million people who had health examinations. Between 2002 and 2019, almost 200,000 received a cancer diagnosis.

    People who quit when they were aged 50 or older still experienced a 40 percent reduction in lung cancer risk.

    Followup for an average of a little over 13 years showed that compared with people who still smoked, the risk of lung cancer among those who quit fell by 42 percent. Smaller but still substantial reductions in risk were found for liver, colorectal and stomach cancers—at 27 percent, 20 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

    Crucially, the study found that while participants who quit before the age of 50 saw their risk of lung cancer fall by 57 percent over the followup period, those who quit when they were aged 50 or older still experienced a 40 percent reduction.

    Reductions in cancer risk took some time to show up. The authors actually observed an increase for about seven years after smoking cessation. This, they wrote, “may be attributed to the inclusion of individuals who had already accumulated substantial damage caused by smoking.”

    With lung cancer specifically, though, the risk began to decline three years sooner than with the other cancers. Moreover, the ultimate benefits of quitting included people whose cessation journey included “a period of relapse.”

    By 15 years after quitting, overall cancer risk had fallen by half.

    “Messaging the idea that it is never too late to quit smoking is critical for supporting the health of older adults who smoke.”

    Dr. Annie Kleykamp, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has studied the effects of various drugs (nicotine, opioids, alcohol) on human cognition and behavior. She told Filter that the new study “aligns with previous research showing that older adults can benefit from quitting smoking and it is never too late.”

    Kleykamp cited another study, conducted in 2004, that showed “cessation at age 60, 50, 40, or 30 years, gained, respectively, about three, six, nine, or 10 years of life expectancy.” A 2022 study also concluded that “smoking cessation is recommended for the elderly because of the remarkable success rates irrespective of age.

    “Messaging the idea that it is never too late to quit smoking is critical for supporting the health of older adults who smoke,” emphasized Kleykamp, who has written for Filter about the importance of including this population in harm reduction efforts.

    The South Korean study didn’t address how people had quit smoking, which would be another vital question in a country where cigarette sales have declined, albeit unevenly, as far safer heated tobacco products and nicotine vapes have grown in popularity.

    “Many older adults have smoked for decades and are highly dependent on smoking—this age group is the least likely to quit,” Kleykamp said. A recent paper indicated that smoking prevalence among adults aged 65-plus in the United States hardly changed from 2011-2022.

    “I think this reality means that harm reduction is critical for this population, as many people may not be interested in quitting smoking even if they know it could add years to their life,” Kleykamp continued. “Shifting older adults to non-combustible [options] is essential.”

    But while total abstinence from cigarettes may be healthiest, it is not necessarily the only answer, she added, when further research has indicated that cutting the number of cigarettes smoked, another form of harm reduction, can significantly improve the health of older people.

    “I’m probably at that stage where I’d like to give up, but it’s too late now is holding me back.”

    How to translate good news like the latest research into actions that can transform people’s lives?

    “There’s a fatalistic side that recalls when my father died,” Ian Furniss, a 59-year-old man in the United Kingdom who has smoked since 1977, told Filter. His father died of cancer, and had difficulty breathing in his last days.

    “The doctor blamed it on smoking, even though he’d given up probably 30 years before,” Furniss related, recalling that the doctor said “the damage had already been done.”

    Furniss readily admits that evidence like the recent study speaks against this perception. But he finds his experience plays into the “fatalistic sense of it’s too late.”

    “I’m probably at that stage where I’d like to give up, but it’s too late now is holding me back, even though it’s not the only thing,” he said. Life’s hardships make “guilty pleasures” difficult to relinquish.

    “I think many smokers of my age have become desensitized to the medical advice,” Furniss said. “A lifestyle change would probably be the thing to make me quit, and then this new study would help reinforce that decision.”

    It’s never too late. Recently in the UK, one group of older adults, all neighbors who had smoked for most of their lives, took part in a smoking cessation program supported by Yorkshire Smokefree Calderdale and Yorkshire Cancer Research.

    Together, they all quit smoking with the help of free vapes the program provided, so they could still use nicotine. With the money they saved, the residents of “Quitters Street,” as program workers called it, organized day trips and redecorated their homes.

    “It’s been marvelous,” said one woman who participated.



    Photograph by 947051 via Pixabay

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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