WASHINGTON -- After more than two decades of delivering grim statistics about the dangers of cigarettes, the annual surgeon general's report on smoking released yesterday brought some good news: It is never too late to quit.
"Smoking cessation has major and immediate health benefits for men and women of all ages," Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello said at a news conference.
Even older Americans who have smoked for many years and those who suffer from smoking-related diseases can reverse some of smoking's ill effects and extend their lives by stopping, said the report, which this year focused on the health benefits of giving up cigarettes.
Federal health officials, saying the investment is worth it, also called on public and private insurers to pay for the cost of smoking-cessation programs.
Although more than 38 million Americans have stopped smoking, about 50 million Americans smoked more than 500 billion cigarettes last year, Dr. Novello said. Smoking has been associated with certain cancers, especially lung cancer -- the No. 1 cancer killer of men and women -- and with circulatory diseases, heart disease, stroke, and numerous respiratory diseases, including emphysema.
Federal health officials have estimated that the effects of smoking kill 390,000 Americans every year and cost the nation more than $52 billion in health care expenditures and lost productivity.
The report also zeroed in on many of the public's worst fears about quitting, such as weight gain. A review of 15 studies involving 20,000 people showed that, although four-fifths of the ex-smokers interviewed did gain weight, the average gain was only 5 pounds. The risk of large weight gain after quitting is low, the report said.
"Less than 4 percent of those who quit smoking gained more than 20 pounds," said Dr. Novello, who became surgeon general March 10. "Sometimes we should be more health conscious than body conscious."
A wide range of health organizations praised the report.
"There are immense benefits to quitting, no matter how long you've smoked," said Fran Du Melle, chairwoman of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, which represents the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.
Of the 50 million Americans who still smoke, an estimated 7 million are older than 60, Dr. Novello said.
Officials from the The Tobacco Institute said the latest smoking report offered nothing new.
"Smokers have long had this universal awareness about what the surgeon general has to say about the health risks of smoking," said spokeswoman Brennan Dawson.