Blair Horner: Good News And Bad News In New York’s Cancer Fighting Efforts

Aug 7, 2017

Every year, the American Cancer Society reviews each of the 50 states’ cancer-fighting programs.  The report, How Do You Measure Up, was released last week and identified some good news and bad for New Yorkers.

As we all know, cancer is a classification of many types of diseases.  According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is “the name given to a collection of related diseases.  There are about 100 different types of cancer.  In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues.”  As those cells spread, they can damage other parts of the body and may form growths called tumors. 

Virtually all New Yorkers have had an experience with cancer.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second leading cause of death in America.  Outside of the relatively benign skin cancers, there are five cancers that constitute roughly half of all cancer cases in New York and that also constitute half of all of the cancer deaths.  Those are cancers of the prostate, female breast, lung, pancreas, and colon.

Breast cancer is the leading form of cancer affecting women and the second biggest killer.  Yet, it is not the leading cause of cancer deaths for women.  Prostate cancer is a leading cause of cancer in men, but it is not the leading cause of cancer deaths in men.  That terrible distinction belongs to lung cancer.  Nearly one quarter of all cancer deaths result from lung cancer. 

The American Cancer Society’s report reviewed how the state combats cancer using the best practices that are available.  In some areas, like colon cancer screening, the programs show strong positive results.  While there are always risks to undergoing any more invasive screenings, generally the risks are far outweighed by the benefits of identifying and treating colon cancer.

When it comes to lung cancer, the screening programs’ successes are more limited.  Yet we know how best to avoid lung cancer: by reducing the use of tobacco products.

The leading cause of lung cancer is tobacco use. Today nearly 9 out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes.  Not only are smokers at risk, but even non-smokers can be afflicted by exposure to tobacco smoke.  In the U.S., more than 7,300 nonsmoking lung cancer patients die each year from exposure to secondhand smoke alone.

The American Cancer Society report reviewed the state’s tobacco control efforts and essentially gave it a failing grade.  It’s not that the program doesn’t follow the best practices, it’s because the program is starved for funds – funds which are readily available. 

And that’s where New York State policy comes in. 

The federal government has offered blueprints to the states on how to design their tobacco control programs to have the most beneficial impact.  And here is where the wheels start to come off in New York.

The experts at the federal government’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has. 

What is most inexplicable is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and still receives hundreds of millions from the Master Settlement Agreement.  The Master Settlement Agreement was a deal between the tobacco companies and the states to compensate taxpayers for the health care claims that resulted from tobacco use. 

Instead of investing some of these tobacco revenues into programs to help reduce the health care carnage caused by smoking, the state’s program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration, and has lost more than half of its funding.

So despite receiving well over a billion dollars from tobacco companies – who take it from their addicted customers – the Cuomo Administration has slashed funding for programs to keep kids from starting and to help smokers to quit.  They’ve spent the money elsewhere.

The American Cancer Society’s report should be a wake-up call to the Administration and to all New Yorkers – invest tobacco revenues into health prevention; if that is done many lives will be saved.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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