WASHINGTON -- Blacks are much more likely than whites to get lung cancer from smoking cigarettes, according to a large study that provides new evidence in the debate over whether race plays an important role in health.
The eight-year study of more than 183,000 people found that blacks and Hawaiians are about 55 percent more likely than whites to develop lung cancer from light to moderate smoking. Japanese Americans and Latinos are about 50 percent less likely than whites, the researchers found.
Although previous studies have indicated that smoking poses varying degrees of risk to people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the size and sophistication of the study, which is being published in today's issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, make it the most convincing to date, the researchers said.
''We observed quite striking differences," said Christopher Haiman of the University of Southern California, who led the study. ''This suggests there are racial and ethnic differences in the smoking-related risk of lung cancer."
The study rekindles a long debate about whether race is important in understanding why some people are more prone to certain diseases, whether treatments should be tailored to racial and ethnic groups, and whether biological differences help explain why members of racial minorities are much more likely than whites to get sick, respond less well to treatment, and die younger.
Proponents of the importance of racial differences hailed the findings as evidence that biological differences among races can be significant, making it imperative that research focus on these variations to try to resolve disparities in health.
''Tobacco is a drug. What about the drugs we give . . . such as cancer medications or heart medications or lung medication?" said Esteban Gonzalez Burchard of the University of California at San Francisco. ''There could be important biologic differences that help to explain the differences we see in disease prevalence, severity, and mortality, as well as response to therapies."
Skeptics, however, said that the study is inconclusive and that it could fuel racial stereotyping and divert attention from environmental and social factors that are probably far more important.