The research, published today in the international journal BMC Medicine, is the first evidence from a broad cross-section of the population to show the smoking-related death toll is as high as two thirds.
"We knew smoking was bad but we now have direct independent evidence that confirms the disturbing findings that have been emerging internationally," said lead author Professor Emily Banks, Scientific Director of the Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study and a researcher at the Australian National University.
Until relatively recently it was thought that about half of smokers would die of a smoking-related illness, but newer studies in UK women, British doctors and Amercian Cancer Society volunteers have put the figure much higher, at up to 67%.
"We have been able to show exactly the same result in a very large population-wide sample," Professor Banks said.
The research is the result of a four-year analysis of health outcomes from more than 200,000 men and women participating in the Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study, the largest longitudinal study of healthy ageing in the Southern Hemisphere.
Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world and is an international leader on plain cigarette packaging. "But our findings are an important reminder that the war on tobacco is not yet won, and tobacco control efforts must go on," Professor Banks said.
The research was supported by the National Heart Foundation of Australia in collaboration with major 45 and Up Study partner Cancer Council NSW and was conducted by a national and international team. It also found that compared with non-smokers, smoking just 10 cigarettes a day doubles the risk of dying and smoking a pack a day increases the risk four to five fold.
The NSW Heart Foundation's CEO, Kerry Doyle, said the Australian Government was on the right path in driving down smoking rates through initiatives like tax increases and plain packaging.
"Higher tobacco prices have been shown to be the most effective intervention available to governments to reduce demand for tobacco. With smoking being a major cause of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease the more deterrents people have between them and smoking, the better," Ms Doyle said.
Scott Walsberger, Tobacco Control Manager at Cancer Council NSW, said the research results highlighted an important message for smokers: "It's never too late to quit, no matter what your age, or how much you smoke."
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