Cancer rates not explained by smoking: a county-level analysis

Environ Health. 2020 Jun 6;19(1):64. doi: 10.1186/s12940-020-00613-x.


Background: Debates over the importance of "lifestyle" versus "environment" contributions to cancer have been going on for over 40 years. While it is clear that cigarette smoking is the most significant cancer risk factor, the contributions of occupational and environmental carcinogens in air, water and food remain controversial. In practice, most cancer prevention messaging focuses on reducing cigarette smoking and changing other personal behaviors with little mention of environmental chemicals, despite widespread exposure to many known carcinogens. To inform decision-making on cancer prevention priorities, we evaluated the potential impact of smoking cessation on cancer rates.

Methods: Using cancer incidence data from 612 counties in the SEER database, and county-level smoking prevalences, we investigated the impact of smoking cessation on incidence for 12 smoking-related cancer types, 2006-2016. A multilevel mixed-effects regression model quantified the association between county-level smoking prevalence and cancer incidence, adjusting for age, gender and variability over time and among counties. We simulated complete smoking cessation and estimated the effects on county-level cancer rates.

Results: Regression models showed the expected strong association between smoking prevalence and cancer incidence. Simulating complete smoking cessation, the incidence of the 12 smoking-related cancer types fell by 39.8% (54.9% for airways cancers; 28.9% for non-airways cancers). And, while the actual rates of smoking-related cancers from 2006 to 2016 declined (annual percent change (APC) = - 0.8, 95% CI = - 1.0 to - 0.5%), under the scenario of smoking elimination, the trend in cancer incidence at these sites was not declining (APC = - 0.1, 95% CI = - 0.4 to + 0.1%). Not all counties were predicted to benefit equally from smoking elimination, and cancer rates would fall less than 10% in some counties.

Conclusions: Smoking prevention has produced dramatic reductions in cancer in the US for 12 major types. However, we estimate that eliminating smoking completely would not affect about 60% of cancer cases of the 12 smoking-related types, leaving no improvement in the incidence trend from 2006 to 2016. We conclude that cancer prevention strategies should focus not only on lifestyle changes but also the likely contributions of the full range of risk factors, including environmental/occupational carcinogens.

Keywords: Cancer prevention; Epidemiology; Smoking cessation; Smoking-related cancers.