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Lung cancer more common among ‘never-smokers’ than people think, experts say

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The experts suggest smoking “stigma” has inadvertently diverted research attention away from lung cancer.

Lung cancer among never-smokers deserves more recognition (Jonathan Brady/ PA)

Lung cancer among people who have never smoked is “more common than most people think”, experts have warned.

An estimated 6,000 “never-smokers” – those who have had less than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime – die from the disease every year in the UK, higher than deaths from other cancer types, according to a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

If considered separately, lung cancer among this group alone would be the eighth most common cause of cancer-related death in the country, the authors said.

They suggest stigma surrounding smoking has led to a lack of research into the disease, and have called for greater work to tackle other causes of lung cancer.

While smoking remains the largest modifiable risk factor for lung cancer in the UK – accounting for 86% of cases – pollution and second-hand smoke are also linked to its development.

“Lung cancer in never-smokers is more common than most people think and on the rise: it is time to give this disease the recognition it deserves,” the authors said.

Around 900 people die from cervical cancer, 4,200 from ovarian cancer and 5,200 from lymphoma in the UK every year.

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Professor Mick Peake, co-author from the University College London Hospitals Cancer Collaborative, said “Despite advances in our understanding, most people who have never smoked do not believe they are at risk and often experience long delays in diagnosis, reducing their chances of receiving curative treatment.”

Around 15% of people in the UK smoke, the authors say (Jonathan Brady/ PA)
Around 15% of people in the UK smoke, the authors say (Jonathan Brady/ PA)

He added: “The stigma of smoking has been the major factor behind the lack of interest in, knowledge of and research into lung cancer.

“Therefore, in many ways, never-smokers who develop lung cancer are, as a result, disadvantaged.”

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A recent Public Health England (PHE) report called for a raft of measures to cut air pollution, including stopping cars idling near school gates and promoting car pool lanes.

Lead author, Professor Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at PHE, said: “For too long having lung cancer has only been thought of as a smoking related disease.

“This remains an important association but, as this work shows, the scale of the challenge means there is a need to raise awareness with clinicians and policy makers of the other risk factors including indoor and outdoor air pollution.

“This is one reason why PHE published its review of the evidence and recommended specific actions local authorities can take to improve their air quality.

“By delivering on the promise of a clean air generation we can reduce the number of lung cancers among those who have never smoked.”

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