Trends in smoking associated respiratory diseases in England and Wales during 1941-85 have been studied, with careful attention to problems caused by changes in classification of cause of death. Three diseases were selected for analysis: lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic obstructive lung disease. During 1971-85 deaths that would previously have been certified under chronic bronchitis have increasingly tended to be classified under chronic airways obstruction. The definition of chronic obstructive lung disease that was used includes both terms to avoid the artificial decline caused by consideration of chronic bronchitis in isolation. Age specific rates for all three diseases show a pronounced cohort (period of birth) pattern, rates for men rising up to the rates for those born shortly after the turn of the century and then declining, and rates for women peaking in the cohort born 20-25 years later. For chronic obstructive lung disease, but not for lung cancer and emphysema, the cohort peak is superimposed on a sharply declining downward trend. In both sexes cohort patterns of cumulative cigarette consumption peak at a time broadly similar to those seen for the three diseases. Trends in cigarette consumption, however, cannot explain the underlying steeply declining rate of chronic obstructive lung disease. Nor can they fully explain the declining trends in lung cancer and emphysema rates in younger men and women.
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