INTRODUCTION: Smoking contributes substantially to mortality levels and trends. Its role in country differences in mortality has, however, hardly been quantified. The current study formally assesses the - so far unknown - changing contribution of smoking to country differences in life expectancy at birth (e0) across Europe.
METHODS: Using all-cause mortality data and indirectly estimated smoking-attributable mortality rates by age and sex for 30 European countries from 1985 to 2014, the differences in e0 between each individual European country and the weighted average were decomposed into a smoking- and a non-smoking-related part.
RESULTS: In 2014, e0 ranged from 70.8 years in Russia to 83.1 years in Switzerland. Men exhibited larger country differences than women (variance of 21.9 and 7.0 years, respectively). Country differences in e0 increased up to 2005, and declined thereafter. Among men, the average contribution of smoking to the country differences in e0 was highest around 1990 (47%), and declined to 35% in 2014. Among women, the average relative contribution of smoking declined from 1991 to 2011, and smoking resulted in smaller differences in the average e0 level in the majority of European countries. For both sexes combined, the contribution of smoking to country differences in e0 was higher than 20% throughout the period.
CONCLUSIONS: Smoking contributed substantially to the country differences in e0 in Europe, their increases up to 1991, and their decreases since 2005, especially among men. Policies that discourage smoking can help to reduce inequalities in mortality levels across Europe in the long run.