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COPD National Action Plan: Frequently Asked Questions

What is COPD?

COPD – short for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – is a progressive lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. COPD is also known as emphysema, which is a result of permanently damaged air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis, which is chronic inflammation of the airways. The disease can cause coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms. When left untreated, people with COPD gradually lose their stamina and ability to perform daily activities.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, but up to 25 percent of people with COPD have never smoked. Other causes of COPD include long-term exposure to lung irritants, including chemicals, dust or fumes in the workplace; secondhand smoke; or other air pollutants. In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency. People with AAT deficiency can get COPD even if they have never smoked or had long-term exposure to harmful pollutants.

How many people are affected by COPD?

In the United States, COPD is the third leading cause of death. Its prevalence in adults 18 years of age and older is 6.5 percent. An estimated 16 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD[1], and millions more are believed to have it but do not know it. Many mistake COPD’s steadily-worsening symptoms—shortness of breath, chronic coughing and wheezing—for problems that naturally come with aging or being out of shape. As a result, many delay seeking a diagnosis.

Who is at higher risk?

COPD is more common than many people realize, and it disproportionally affects some U.S. ethnic groups (American Indian/Alaska Native), women, older adults, and those living in the southern states along the Mississippi-Ohio River Valley.

  • One in five adults in the United States over the age of 45 has COPD.
  • Women are more likely to have COPD than men (6.7 percent vs. 5.2 percent, respectively)
  • Of those diagnosed, 56 percent are women and 44 percent are men)
  • More women die from COPD than men (approximately 70,000 vs. 64,000)
  • Of those diagnosed, 39 percent are current smokers, 36 percent are former smokers and 25 percent have never smoked.
    • Genetics can also play a role in the development of COPD, and people with a rare condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency are at an increased risk. Estimates of how many people have AAT suggest that there are currently 100,000 Americans who are homozygotes for the mutation and have the condition, but only 15,000 have received the diagnosis.

Why is a COPD National Action Plan so important?

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and is the fourth leading cause of disability. Some 15 percent of people with a disability have COPD.[2] In 2010, more than $32 billion was spent on COPD-related patient care; and those costs are projected to increase to $49 billion by 2020.[3]  

While death from chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes continue to decline, COPD is the only one of the six leading causes of death that has not seen a similar decline. The nation is finally recognizing COPD as a serious disease that requires intervention from all involved.

How was the National Action Plan developed?

Following a request from Congress, the NHLBI convened federal partners in 2013 and 2014 through trans-governmental workshops and conference calls to discuss the structural and scientific environment for the Action Plan and to establish initial goals the Action Plan was to address.

In early 2016, the NHLBI convened the COPD community for a COPD Town Hall on the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Md. Federal and nonfederal partners, including patients and their families, health care providers, academia, and industry, came together for the two-day meeting and discussed each goal. The comments directly informed the Action Plan, and the engagement of the community remained integral to the Plan, and it helped further refine its five goals. In October 2016, the NHLBI invited the public to review and comment on the draft Action Plan. It carefully considered all feedback before finalizing the COPD National Action Plan and soliciting reviews from other federal agencies.

How will the National Action Plan be used?

Many states have held state COPD summits, formed coalitions, and developed state action plans. It takes tremendous resources to host summits and develop plans—and even more to execute them. The COPD National Action Plan for the first time provides organizations with a unified framework that they can adapt to their specific needs by using it to identify tasks and decide where to concentrate available resources.

The community embracing this National Action Plan believes that everybody with the capacity to contribute to the implementation of this Action Plan will do so in good spirit.  The Action Plan highlights the many opportunities the community can seize to help alleviate the burdens caused by COPD, while turning policy and program recommendations into real action.  Importantly, the Action Plan strongly encourages the COPD community to coordinate efforts so that the critical goals—increasing awareness of COPD and minimizing its burden—are fully achieved. Collaboration is an essential element inherent in the implementation of the Action Plan. Together, we can make a positive and lasting impact on the health of individuals, and on public health in general.

What tools are available to promote the National Action Plan to stakeholders, patients, providers, industry, and others working in COPD?

A variety of tools are available to promote that COPD National Action Plan including a digital toolkit, fact sheet, video, animations, and social media resources. These can all be found at COPD.nih.gov.

Is funding available for the implementation of the items outlined in the National Action Plan?

Currently, no federal funding is specifically appropriated for the execution of the COPD National Action Plan. Many agencies and organizations are already engaged in activities that support the Action Plan.  However, with additional resources, more could be done and perhaps done faster. In addition, more organizations could be engaged if resources were available.

How will progress and success be measured?

The implementation discussions and activities for the COPD National Action Plan have yet to happen.  We expect many will begin soon after the launch of the Action Plan, given the excitement the Plan has generated. Some of these initial activities may involve the development of benchmarks to evaluate outcomes of each goal. Surely a measure of success for the Action Plan will be its use and adoption by partner organizations and states nationwide.

Who should be contacted for more information?

Anyone interested in being part of the national effort to address COPD should visit COPD.nih.gov. In addition, a list of organizations already expressing interest and enthusiasm in activities aligned with the goals of the COPD National Action Plan can be found in the plan. If you are served by these organizations in any way, you should feel free to reach out to them directly. 


[1] Ford ES, Croft JB, Mannino DM, Wheaton AG, Zhang X, Giles WH. COPD surveillance--United States, 1999-2011. Chest 2013;144:284-305.

[2] Guarascio AJ, Ray SM, Finch CK, Self TH. The clinical and economic burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the USA. ClinicoEconomics and Outcomes Research : CEOR 2013;5:235-245.

[3] Ford ES, Murphy LB, Khavjou O, Giles WH, Holt JB, Croft JB. Total and state-specific medical and absenteeism costs of COPD among adults aged ≥ 18 years in the United States for 2010 and projections through 2020. Chest. 2015;147(1):31-45.

Last Updated: May 15, 2017