Today women smoke far more than previous generations, giving them a much greater risk of death from lung cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD), according to an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Compared to females in the 1960s, the risk of dying from COLD among female smokers is 4 times higher today; this risk increased to 22.5 times higher than never-smokers, according to researchers. About half of the increase in risk of both conditions occurred during the last 20 years.

“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,” said Michael J. Thun, MD, recently retired as vice president emeritus of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“So not only did the use of cigarette brands marketed as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ fail to prevent a large increase in risk in women, it also may have exacerbated the increase in deaths from chronic obstructive lung disease in male smokers, since the diluted smoke from these cigarettes is inhaled more deeply into the lungs of smokers to maintain the accustomed absorption of nicotine.”

Thun led a team of researchers in reviewing 50-year trends in mortality related to smoking across three time periods (1959–65, 1982–88 and 2000–2010), comparing five large contemporary studies with two historical ACS cohorts. In total the study included more than 2.2 million adults 55 years and older.

The study showed that in male smokers, lung cancer risk leveled off at the high level observed in the 1980s, while the risk of death from COLD continues to increase for reasons that are unclear. The relative risks of death from lung cancer, COPD, ischemic heart disease, any type of stroke, and all causes are now nearly identical for female and male smokers.

According to researchers, this finding is new and confirms the prediction that, in relative terms, “women who smoke like men die like men.”