Quitting smoking is always worth it but the sooner the better, finds major new study

A new research study on smoking has hit the headlines this week and rightly so. This large study, from a team at Oxford University, followed over a million women aged 50 to 69 over twelve years to look at the health hazards of smoking over many years and the benefits of quitting. The hazards among people in middle age depend on earlier smoking habits, not just recent ones, and the authors point out that these long term effects can only be fully seen now, through studying the first generation of women who began to smoke heavily in early adulthood.

What did they do?

The women were asked about their smoking habits and lifestyle, medical history and about other things that can affect health, like where they lived, and the researchers took account of these factors when studying the results. They were surveyed again after three and eight years and followed through national mortality records for an average of twelve years.This was a cohort study, which is ideal for looking at how smoking impacts death rates. It can’t prove that smoking causes death or health problems, but links between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer have been established in other research.

Here’s what they found:

  • At the start of the study, 20% of the women were current smokers, 28% were ex-smokers and 52% were never-smokers
  • Smoking at any age increased the risk of premature death
  • Risk of death increased with earlier regular smoking and increasing number of cigarettes smoked per day

But here’s the good news:

  • Quitting at any age brought important health benefits
  • Women who quit smoking before the age of 30 reduced their risk of smoking-related death by 97% and before age 40 by about 90%
  • Women who quit later in life reduced their risk of smoking-related death by around two thirds

The key messages are the sooner you stop smoking the better and that quitting at any age is worth it. It’s also important not to think that it’s fine to smoke until you’re thirty and then quit; smoking at any age increased the risk of premature death. As we come to the end of Stoptober, big congratulations to all of you who have managed to quit. No doubt you’re already feeling the benefits, and you should be really encouraged by the results of this study.

The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet. The paper contains a wealth of other detail and those who are interested to read it in full can access it for free from the link below.


Pirie K, Peto R, Reeves GK, Green J, Beral V, for the Million Women Study Collaborators. The 21st century hazards of smoking and the benefits of stopping: a prospective study of one million women in the UK [PDF] The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 27 October 2012 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61720-6

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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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