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For the first time on record, the rate of new cancer cases and the cancer death rate are both falling in this country. There appear to be several reasons why this is happening, but perhaps the most important is also the simplest: Over the past several decades, men started smoking less.

Here’s the big new cancer report, compiled by researchers from the American Cancer Society, the CDC and other august institutions.

Between 1996 and 2005, the rate of new cases and deaths fell for the three most common cancers in men — lung, colorectal and prostate — and for two of the three most common cancers in women — breast and colorectal. Lung cancer deaths among women were basically flat during the period, and the rate of new cases inched up.

The most telling data points we saw (helpfully highlighted in this Q&A) showed how closely connected smoking is with death from lung cancer (the leading cancer killer). Utah, which has the nation’s lowest smoking rate and the lowest rate of lung cancer deaths; Kentucky, which has the nation’s highest smoking rate, also has the highest rate of lung cancer deaths — more than three times greater than Utah’s.

For some the results underscore that preventing rather curing cancer should be our top priority. “The whole cancer establishment has been focused on treatment, which has not been terribly productive,” John C. Bailar III, of the National Academy of Sciences, told the Washington Post. “I think what people should conclude from this is we ought to be putting most of our resources where we know there has been progress, almost in spite of what we’ve done, and stop this single-minded focus on treatment.”

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 44.5 million US adults were current smokers in 2006 (the most recent year for which numbers are available). This is 20.8% of all adults (23.9% of men, 18.0% of women) — more than 1 out of 5 people.

When broken down by race/ethnicity, the numbers were as follows:

Whites 21.9%
African Americans 23.0%
Hispanics 15.2%
American Indians/Alaska Natives 32.4%
Asian Americans 10.4%

The numbers were higher in younger age groups. In 2006, CDC reported almost 24% of those 18 to 44 years old were current smokers, compared to 10.2% in those aged 65 or older.

Nationwide, 22.3% of high school students and 8.1% of middle school students were smoking in 2004. More White and Hispanic students smoked cigarettes.  Can anyone tell me why the highest percentages would among American Indians and native Alaskans?

 

 

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