Smoking is its own cultural phenomenon. 

Cigarettes became a staple in classic 80s movies, signifying who the cool character was. The white packs are a staple in gas stations all over the country, cheap and relaxing for those long 4 hour road-trips. And a Lana Del Rey performance never fails to feature her without a cigarette or vape in hand. However, in 2024, we, the general public, feel we know better. 

Although cigarettes remain as “the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year” according to the CDC, the rates have slowly become smaller and smaller as the years go by. Those shows and movies featuring “cool” smokers began to disappear. A December 2023 Vanity Fair article mentions that “the MPAA, under pressure from anti-smoking groups, encouraged studios to eliminate smoking from all youth-rated films; by 2019 Netflix announced its own plans to eliminate smoking in programming rated TV-14 and PG-13.” Instead, yearly school presentations on the Dangers of Smoking took its place. Kids start to realize that smoking does not measure up to what it means to be an adult. Slowly, the cultural power of cigarettes had begun to decrease. But why then is lung cancer in Asian American women, especially for those who have never smoked, so prevalent? 

While lung cancer rates are dropping for every group, a California study finds that nonsmoking Asian American women are having their rates steadily grow. A 2024 NBC News Article finds that “among Asian American women who have lung cancer, more than 50% have never smoked. And for Chinese and Indian American women who have lung cancer, the nonsmoking percentage rises to 80% to 90%.” One would think that as smoking is receding, so too should its effects on the newer and younger generation. Ultimately, scientists are baffled with this result. Thus, there is a call for more research to be introduced.

Even though there have been numerous studies and data conducted on the dangers of smoking, as well as the effects of second-hand smoking, there is a lack of coverage on specifically Asian American women. While NBC News notes the “studies of female nonsmokers in Asia having identified risk factors such as cooking oil fumes, secondhand smoke, air pollution and indoor heating with coal” there is a vast gap of knowledge when it comes to their U.S. counterparts. Therefore, they are led to make inferences of possible causes. For example, “Air pollution may also lead to genetic changes such that Asian patients have some of the highest rates of the cancer-causing epidermal growth factor receptor mutation, which leads healthy cells to divide uncontrollably and grow into tumors.” However, many researchers do not want to keep relying on this second-hand implied knowledge. Rather now is the time to conduct studies focused on Asian American women themselves. 

That is where new programs such as the FANS (Female Asian Never Smokers) Study comes in. A UCSF Cancer Center Q&A addresses the program’s “aims to collect data from Asian American women in the Greater Bay Area to shed light on the issue of non-smoking lung cancer, with the hope of identifying new prevention methods and early diagnosis and treatment options for Asian women.” Not only is there a special drive for the study as the vast majority of the Bay Area’s demographic is of Asian descent, but several of the researchers themselves have suffered and lost their fights to the horrible illness. While the core of the study revolves around smoking, it also reveals the inequities placed in female health, Asian health and the intersection of Asian female health. But with the public’s knowledge of smoking increasing, why has this become an unseen issue?

FANS believes that not enough light is shed on the issue as non-smokers are not even able to participate in lung cancer screening, resulting in many of these cases to be forgotten. Additionally, Asian Americans are silent sufferers. Asian beliefs center around the body and health, from herbal remedies to physical practices such as tai chi, and so this is perhaps an issue they don’t even realize themselves is occurring. Their own culture may get in the way. Furthermore, NBC states in an interview “‘Many Asian patients are very private and don’t want others to know about their diagnosis,’… they don’t want to be burdens to their friends and families or because they’re worried about the stigma of lung cancer.” If they don’t recognize the issues in themselves, how is the rest of the world supposed to know? 

Smoking should not be taken lightly. It should not be idealized and its allure is beginning to fade. We see the catastrophic results it may have for even those who don’t actively participate. Is it a result of the Asian American genetic makeup or just plain ignorance by the United States healthcare and research systems? By understanding smoking and its issues with an Asian American female focus, perhaps the mystery of the invisible fight can be solved. 

Visual Credit: Uitbundig

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