Cigarettes: The lung cancer risk lingers

In April 2005, ex-smokers were reminded that the habit they kicked may come back to haunt them. The newscaster Peter Jennings announced that he has lung cancer, even though he quit smoking 20 years ago (except for a brief relapse after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks).

Smokers who quit are rewarded quickly when it comes to heart disease. Within a year, their risk drops to half that of active smokers. After 15 years, it approaches that of people who've never smoked at all. This is great news because the risk of dying young from heart disease is so much greater than it is from cancer, for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

Now for the bad news. As perhaps evidenced by Jennings, the lung cancer risk from smoking fades more slowly than it does for cardiovascular disease, perhaps because of lasting DNA damage to lung cells. Even 10–15 years after quitting, several studies have shown that an ex-smoker is several times more likely to die of lung cancer than someone who has never smoked. A study published in early 2005 found that former smokers are also more vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke in the workplace, even if they haven't lit up for the last 10 years.

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