MONDAY, Oct. 24, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Nearly one-third of cancer deaths among Americans aged 35 or older are caused by smoking, and the rate is much higher in the South, a new study finds.

Researchers tracking 2014 federal government data found that more than 167,000 cancer deaths among adults 35 and older in 2014—28.6 percent—were attributable to cigarette smoking.

Most of the states with the highest rates of smoking-linked cancer deaths were in the South, including nine of the top 10 ranked states for men and six of the top 10 ranked states for women, according to the study.

Some of these southern states have particularly lax anti-smoking controls in place, the researchers said.

"Not surprisingly, states with underfunded tobacco-control programs have the highest prevalence of smoking, as well as the highest proportion of cancer deaths attributable to cigarette smoking," noted Patricia Folan, who directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y. She reviewed the new findings.

The study was led by Joannie Lortet-Tieulent of the American Cancer Society. Her team found that, among men, rates of smoking-related cancer deaths ranged from a low of about 22 percent in Utah to highs of 39.5 percent in Arkansas, 38.5 percent in Tennessee and Louisiana, and 38.2 percent in Kentucky and West Virginia.

With the exception of Utah, all states had rates of smoking-linked cancer deaths of at least about 30 percent among men, the study authors noted.

For women, rates ranged from a low of about 11 percent in Utah to a high of 29 percent in Kentucky.

Dr. Len Horovitz is a lung health specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Although great strides have been made against smoking, "there are still 40 million smokers in the U.S., so we can continue to expect large numbers of cancer deaths and heart disease as a result," he pointed out.

"Smoking continues to be the biggest threat to health in this country—it's time to help people quit," Horovitz said.

Folan agreed, adding that there are tried-and-true steps that states can take.

"Comprehensive tobacco-control programs can have a huge impact in reducing smoking and cancer rates," she said. Particularly effective are those that "include hard-hitting anti-smoking media campaigns, smoke-free laws, increased taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, state Quitlines, and funding for cessation medications and reimbursement for counseling."

Lortet-Tieulent's team also stressed that the study likely underestimated deaths caused by cigarette smoking, because they only looked at 12 types of cancer.

The study was published online Oct. 24 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.