WASHINGTON – For the first time, women’s death rates from lung cancer are dropping, possibly a turning point in the smoking-fueled epidemic.

It’s a small decline, says the nation’s annual report on cancer — just under 1 percent a year. And lung cancer remains the nation’s, and the world’s, leading cancer killer. But the long-anticipated drop — coming more than a decade after a similar decline began in U.S. men — is a hopeful sign.

“It looks like we’ve turned the corner,” said Elizabeth Ward of the American Cancer Society, co-author of Thursday’s report. “We think this downward trend is real, and we think it will continue.”

Overall, death rates from cancer have been inching down for years, thanks mostly to gains against some leading types — colorectal, breast, prostate and, in men, lung cancer.

The report shows death rates falling an average of 1.6 percent a year between 2003 and 2007, the latest data available. Rates of new diagnoses declined nearly 1 percent a year, researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Lung cancer is expected to kill more than 159,000 Americans this year, nearly 70,500 of them women.

Smoking became rampant among men long before women, and thus men’s lung cancer deaths soared first. But in the early 1990s, death rates began dropping among men as older smokers died and fewer younger men took up the habit. Those rates were dropping 3 percent a year between 2005 and 2007.

Researchers had long anticipated the same pattern would appear among women, and had been tracking signs that women’s death rates had begun inching down for a few years. But only now with a solid five-year trend are researchers confident that the decline is real, said National Cancer Institute statistician Brenda Edwards.