Smoking explains why Americans don't live longer

WASHINGTON Tue Jan 25, 2011 5:29pm EST

A woman holds an unlit cigarette in her mouth in this file photo. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

A woman holds an unlit cigarette in her mouth in this file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Smoking and, to a smaller degree, obesity explain why Americans do not live as long as the French or Japanese, U.S. experts reported on Tuesday.

Even though just 20 percent of Americans smoke now, more than 40 percent of U.S. adults smoked in 1960 and the population is still paying the price, the report from the National Research Council found.

"Other factors, such as obesity, diet, exercise, and economic inequality, also have likely played a role in the current gap and divergence between the United States and other countries," the panel of experts appointed by the council wrote.

Many experts have tried to explain why the United States, which spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country and which has a relatively wealthy and well-nourished population, should rank so poorly against other countries in terms of lifespan.

Gerontologist Eileen Crimmins of the University of Southern California and colleagues looked at cause-of-death statistics for an explanation.

Smoking -- which kills directly and indirectly through secondhand smoke effects -- seemed to be a major factor, they found.

"Smoking appears to be responsible for a good deal of the divergence in female life expectancy," they wrote.

"Fifty years ago, smoking was much more widespread in the United States than in Europe or Japan: a greater proportion of Americans smoked and smoked more intensively than was the case in other countries," they added.

"The health consequences of this behavior are still playing out in today's mortality rates."

Japan ranks No. 1 in terms of life expectancy, with a child born today likely to live to be nearly 83 on average, according to the United Nations. The United States ranks 36th, with a life expectancy of 78.3 -- below most of Europe, South Korea, Chile and right below Cuba.

"Smoking also has caused significant reductions in life expectancy in the Netherlands and Denmark, which ... are two other countries with relatively poor life expectancy trends," the report adds.

BETTER TIMES COMING

But because smoking rates are improving in the United States, lifespans should improve, the report predicts.

Other experts have found just the opposite -- that smoking and obesity do not fully explain the U.S. lag. Last October, a team at Columbia University in New York determined that the lack of a coherent healthcare system in the United States was to blame.

But the National Research Council experts rejected this possibility.

"The health care system in the United States differs from those in other high-income countries in a number of ways that conceivably could lead to differences in life expectancy," they wrote.

"However, this is a smaller factor above age 65 than at younger ages because of Medicare entitlements. For the main causes of death at older ages -- cancer and cardiovascular disease -- available indicators do not suggest that the U.S. health care system is failing to prevent deaths that would elsewhere be averted," they added.

"In fact, cancer detection and survival appear to be better in the United States than in most other high-income countries. Survival rates following a heart attack also are favorable in the United States."

The National Research Council, one of the National Academies of Sciences, is an independent organization that advises the federal government and other institutions on scientific matters.

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (26)
anonymot wrote:
Experts my a. I live in France and when Americans come over they’re shocked by how many people smoke. America has been cowed by √©experts” whose opinions are paid for by opinion makers. That smoking is not good for your health is certain, but the trembling fear installed by the anti-smoking lobby is a horrible comment on a country slipping into obedience to its masters. (I stopped smoking 25 years ago, but for my own reasons, not because I was bowbeaten or legislated into it!)

Jan 25, 2011 6:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Bisky71 wrote:
I missed the part of the article where they compared our smoking rates to other countries. It claimed our longevity rates don’t compare with other countries due to our smoking. Our smoking rate was mentioned at 20% but other rates weren’t mention. Boy the Lamestream media is just terrible. The biggest risk to our health is fluoride in the water which damages organs, kills brain cells, lowers IQ, decreases bone density, and ruins your teeth. I guess fluoride heads might not notice the mistakes in logic of this article.

Jan 25, 2011 6:10pm EST  --  Report as abuse
I live in France for almost 5 years. They smoke just as much as Americans and from my observation, the French smoke more.

Jan 25, 2011 6:13pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.