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Bernard A. Lubell/MEDILL

A new study says smoking in the United States is decreasing lifespan compared to other wealthy nations.

Smoking causing shorter lifespans in U.S., new study shows

by Bernard A. Lubell
Jan 26, 2011

If you smoked two to three decades ago, you might just now be seeing the peak impact of cigarettes on your life — and death — as smoking takes a toll on America’s lifespan.  

A study released Tuesday by the National Research Council blamed past smoking rates as a primary reason for shorter lifespans in the United States. Although the U.S. spends more money than any other nation on health care, life expectancy here is lower than in some other wealthy nations, such as Japan, the study said. 

“What’s unique and interesting is that they’re suggesting what we’re witnessing now is a time- lagged effect of smoking that existed among younger cohorts in the United States relative to other developed nations,” said Stuart Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Three to five decades ago, smoking was much more prevalent in the U.S. than in Europe or Japan, which still impacts life expectancy today, according to the study. 

Life expectancy for females at birth in the U.S. is 80.78 years, compared with 75.64 years for men as of 2007, the most recently available data, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In Illinois, life expectancy for females was 79.5 and for males 74 in 2000, the most recent data available from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Chicago figures were not available. 

Chicagoan David Theriault, 68, has been a smoker for 30 years. “It’s a habit,” Theriault said, acknowledging that people die from smoking. “At times I think I should quit.”   

Lack of universal access to health care in the U.S. also reduced life expectancy, the study said. 

Professor Olshansky agreed, and said the problem in Chicago is clear. “We have a large proportion of ethnic minorities, and [they] are going to face a large number of challenges to health and longevity” because of lack of access to health care. 

“Once you’ve already acquired the negative risk factor, your chances of survival are much greater if you have access to health care than if you don’t,” he said. 

“Me and my girlfriend are trying to quit,” said Peter Mural, 32. Although Mural has health insurance, he said it does not cover many of the popular smoking-cessation drugs.  He has been smoking for 10 to 15 years, he said, and has tried stop-smoking patches and nicotine gum. 

Health-care policy, such as the Smoke Free Illinois Act, is imperative to prevent high mortality rates, said Mark Peysakhovich, senior director of government relations for the American Heart Association in Illinois. Passed in 2008, the act prohibits smoking in all public places and indoor workplaces. 

“It’s incredibly important to continue social de-normalization of smoking products,” he said. “One of the great benefits of smoke free legislation in Illinois is that it makes smoking less convenient for smokers and it makes smoking less attractive to kids.” 

Despite the risks involved, Theriault said he doesn’t expect to ever quit smoking. “I’m maybe killing myself,” he said. “It’s not healthy, but I can’t say I hate it — I enjoy smoking.”