Researchers say the period 2000 to 2010 saw women at a 25-fold higher level of risk than in the 1960s. The increased risk offsets advances in medicine that have cut death rates among the majority of the people over the last 50 years.
A similar trend holds true for deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), another smoking-related condition, the New England Journal of Medicine reports.
In this case, the risk of death rose from four times greater than it was for never-smokers in the 1960s to 22.5 times, according to the Daily Mail.
Women smokers today start their habit earlier than they did generations ago, and until recently smoked more cigarettes per day. Tobacco use among women peaked in the 1980s, having a health impact that was felt many years later.
The study involved more than 2.2 million men and women aged 55 and older and included data spanning the period from 1959 to 2010.
Men and women who smoked in the current decade were almost equally more at risk than non-smokers of suffering lung cancer, COPD, heart disease and strokes, the research showed.
For reasons still not understood, lung cancer rates among men plateaued in the 1980s while the risk of death from COPD in the male population continued to increase.
The findings strongly confirm the claim that “if women smoke like men, they will die like men,” say the researchers. Quitting smoking at any age dramatically reduces death rates from all major diseases caused by smoking, the study found.
Paradoxically, there could be a link between higher death rates and the rise in popularity of milder “light” cigarettes, according to study author Michael Thun from the American Cancer Society.
He said: “The steep increase in risk among female smokers has continued for decades after the serious health risks from smoking were well established, and despite the fact that women predominantly smoked cigarette brands marketed as lower in tar and nicotine.”