Inuit in Canada's North have the highest rate of lung cancer in the world, a finding blamed largely on the popularity of cigarettes in the region, says a Canadian study.

The rate among Inuit living in Alaska, Greenland and Canada is twice as high as that found among Caucasian people in the United States, according to research published in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

When comparing the incidence within Inuit populations, researchers found lung-cancer rates are 1.5 times higher among Inuit men living in Canada than they are among those living in Alaska and Greenland. The rate for Canadian Inuit women was even more alarming: they have two to three times the rate of other Inuit. 

"One needs to look no further than the extensive prevalence of smoking among Inuit populations," the authors write. "Within homes, it is likely that there is a high rate of passive smoking."

Kue Young, study co-author and a professor of public health at the University of Toronto, is to present his findings on cancer trends among the circumpolar Inuit at a conference in Quebec City this week.

According to Statistics Canada, 58 per cent of Inuit adults surveyed between October 2006 and March 2007 smoked every day, and another eight per cent smoked occasionally. The daily rate was over three times the 17 per cent among all adults in Canada.

The circumpolar study also found that rates of nasopharyngeal cancer — the area behind the nose — are higher among circumpolar Inuit when compared to Caucasians in the U.S.

For Inuit men, the rate is 24 times higher while for women it is 37 times higher.

The authors say that while the link is not clearly understood, previous studies have also shown greater risk for this kind of cancer among Inuit and point to greater exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus and dietary factors such as the high consumption of preserved foods such as salted fish.