Young Smokers Suffer Genetic Damage

New research published today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that individuals who smoke as children or young adults often suffer irreparable genetic damage in the lungs that causes increased risk for lung cancer throughout their lives.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine compared the blood and tissue of 143 lung cancer patients and found the most genetic damage among lifelong smokers, and the least genetic damage among those who had never smoked. Researchers were astounded to find that, among ex-smokers, levels of genetic damage were highest among those who had started smoking as children or teenagers, regardless of how long ago those individuals had quit smoking.

Given the large numbers of young women and men who smoke, these findings are extremely alarming. “If we’re right,” said study head Dr. John K. Wiencke, “it says that something happens in adolescence that changes you, perhaps forever.” Wiencke explained that he and his fellow researchers had incorrectly assumed that genetic lung damage would be the greatest among ex-smokers who had smoked the most cigarettes, or who had quit only recently.

Lung cancer expert Dr. John Minna commented that researchers have long believed that individuals who started smoking as children had higher rates of cancer because they had smoked for a longer time, but that the new finding “suggest something entirely different.” Minna explained, “Right now, about half of new lung cancer cases are occurring in former smokers. If it turns out that a very brief period of smoking during adolescence, or starting then, will have this long-lasting effect in terms of cancer development, even if you stop at a young age, that is absolutely frightening.”

The Centers for Disease Control Web site reports that about 22 million adult women and at least 1.5 million adolescent girls currently smoke cigarettes.


New York Times - April 7, 1999

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