Friday, August 27, 2004

Cigarettes and youth

'Young smokers are five times more likely to have heart attacks', says The Times, reporting on work by Finnish researchers published in the journal Tobacco Control. World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics were studied for 132,000 men and women between the ages of 35 and 64 in 21 countries. Of these, 23,000 suffered non-fatal heart attacks. In the 35-39 age group, 80 per cent of heart attack patients were smokers. The researchers emphasised the importance of helping younger smokers to quit, especially since they may believe that their risk of heart attack is little different to that of non-smokers. 'Our data indicates that half of non-fatal heart attacks in men and women younger than 50 years - even more in younger age groups - would be preventable if smoking cessation programmes were successful.'

Smoking is certainly not good for you. It massively increases the risk of lung cancer in later life and substantially increases the risk of many other conditions, including heart attacks. However, even with smoking it is important not to overstate the risks, especially where younger people are concerned.

The most significant factor in both heart attacks and lung cancer is age. Of the 23,000 heart attacks in this study, just 800 - about three percent - were among people in the younger age group. But even this underplays the degree to which age is a factor. In England and Wales, for example, around 80 per cent of coronary disease deaths occur after the age of 65 - in other words, older than anyone covered by this research. So in 2002, around 2,500 people under the age of 44 suffered heart attacks in the UK - or about one in 7,000 of the 17million people between 25-44 years of age. Even if a disproportionate number of these people were smokers, the risk was still very low.

Even the term 'younger people' is rather disingenuous. Most of those in the 35-39 age group will have been smoking for 20 years. However, today there is a particular spin put on any reported research that emphasises the future risk to young smokers, to try to scare them into giving up now. This is misguided, because it fails to appreciate that young people consider themselves, with some justification, indestructible - and it misrepresents the content of the research. What this research actually reminds us is that the absolute risks of smoking, as opposed to the relative risks, are quite low for younger people, and that quitting before your thirties will probably mean your misspent, nicotine-ridden youth has little long-term impact on your health.

'Young smokers are five times more likely to have heart attacks', The Times(London), 24 August 2004

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