STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You may think you know all there is to know about the risks of smoking, but we have some news out this week. It's new information released in the New England Journal of Medicine, information that shows the risk of death from smoking is much higher in women than previously thought. There's also surprising new data on the benefits of quitting. NPR's Richard Knox has the story.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: First, the under-appreciated risk of smoking for women. Dr. Prabhat Jha, an author of one study, says before now, not enough women had been smoking long enough to gauge their true risk.

DR. PRABHAT JHA: The group of women that started smoking seriously in and around 1960s, can be followed up only now - fully five decades later - to understand what are the full consequences of smoking among women.

KNOX: In the 1980s, it looked like women who smoked were about 13 times more likely to die from lung cancer than women who never did. But the new analysis finds that female smokers are more than 26 times more likely to die of lung cancer than nonsmoking women - and their risk of death from any cause is 50 percent higher than previously thought.

Jha, from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says the new data also quantify the terrible costs of smoking for all smokers more precisely than ever.

JHA: What we found in studying over 220,000 adult Americans, is that smoking leads to the loss of about a decade of life.

KNOX: And long-term smoking reduces a smoker's chances of living to the age of 80 by half. But Jha says there are also bigger benefits from quitting than most people have thought. A long-term smoker who quits before age 40 actually turns back the clock on his risk of dying - gaining back nine out of the 10 years of life he'd have lost if he hadn't stopped.

JHA: It's a very encouraging message, you know. And if you think about the average, let's say, 45-year-old smoker in the United States, they probably started when they were age 15. They might be smoking for a quarter of a century. And they might think, oh, it's too late. There's no point for me to quit, because the damage is done. But that's not true.

KNOX: And there is substantial benefit from quitting at older ages too. Quitting by age 50 means about six years of life gained back, and quitting by age 60 buys you back four years of the 10 you'd lose if you didn't quit. Dr. Michael Eriksen of Georgia State University says looking at it this way might motivate more people to quit, because they can relate it to their own lives.

DR. MICHAEL ERIKSEN: They're not stupid. They want a full life. They want to enjoy their grandchildren, their retirement. And realizing that their life will be shortened by a full decade, puts the risk in clear and stark terms.

KNOX: Dr. Nancy Rigotti, who runs smoking cessation programs at Massachusetts General Hospital, agrees that it might be more effective to emphasize what people have to gain if they stop smoking.

DR. NANCY RIGOTTI: The positive is a much better, more much more powerful message, much more persuasive.

KNOX: But she worries that some may interpret the message as saying it's OK to smoke until their 30s or even age 40, because if they quit then, they can reverse all or most of the damage.

RIGOTTI: A lot of young women think, I can smoke until I get pregnant. And people say, I can smoke until I'm 40. But it's certainly easier to quit earlier than later.

KNOX: The longer they smoke, the harder it is to quit. Rigotti says she'll start using the new findings right away in her everyday practice.

RIGOTTI: I'm going to tell my patients that quitting early is really important. They should be thinking about it now, but also that it's never too late to quit.

KNOX: And she also says the new information will come in handy as new Obamacare provisions require all health insurers to start covering smoking-cessation programs. Richard Knox, NPR News.

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