For the first time on record, the rate of new cancer cases and the cancer death rate are both falling in this country. There appear to be several reasons why this is happening, but perhaps the most important is also the simplest: Over the past several decades, men started smoking less.

Here’s the big new cancer report, compiled by researchers from the American Cancer Society, the CDC and other august institutions.

Between 1996 and 2005, the rate of new cases and deaths fell for the three most common cancers in men — lung, colorectal and prostate — and for two of the three most common cancers in women — breast and colorectal. Lung cancer deaths among women were basically flat during the period, and the rate of new cases inched up.

The most telling data points we saw (helpfully highlighted in this Q&A) showed how closely connected smoking is with death from lung cancer (the leading cancer killer). Utah, which has the nation’s lowest smoking rate and the lowest rate of lung cancer deaths; Kentucky, which has the nation’s highest smoking rate, also has the highest rate of lung cancer deaths — more than three times greater than Utah’s.

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For some the results underscore that preventing rather curing cancer should be our top priority. “The whole cancer establishment has been focused on treatment, which has not been terribly productive,” John C. Bailar III, of the National Academy of Sciences, told the Washington Post. “I think what people should conclude from this is we ought to be putting most of our resources where we know there has been progress, almost in spite of what we’ve done, and stop this single-minded focus on treatment.”

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