Blair Horner: The Governor’s Cancer Fighting Budget Falls Far Short

Feb 20, 2017

The governor has done a lot to promote the state’s program to boost breast cancer screening rates.  He spent considerable time advocating for the expanded program and made it a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the State address.  But cancer is not only a women’s issue, it affects all of us. 

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America – a close second to heart disease.  According to the American Cancer Society, in 2017 an estimated 107,000 New Yorkers will receive a cancer diagnosis and nearly 36,000 New Yorkers will die from the disease.

Four cancers – female breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers – are responsible for roughly half of the cancers expected in New York State – both in terms of the number of cases and the estimated number of deaths.  Those “big four” drive the state’s cancer experience.

Of course, high rates of cancer occurrence do not necessarily translate to deaths occurring at the same rate.  While female breast cancer is the leading cancer for women, for example, it is not the leading cancer killer.

That “distinction” is reserved for lung cancer.  Lung cancer is far and away the biggest cancer killer in New York State, accounting for roughly one quarter of all cancer deaths.

And that key statistic should drive public policy.  We know that the overwhelming majority of lung cancers result from exposure to tobacco smoke. 

There is no news there.

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

The CDC recommends that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has.  In terms of spending on tobacco control, the high water mark was in FY2007-08 when the state spent over $85 million.  But tobacco control spending has declined since 2008.

The program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration and has lost more than half of its funding from ten years ago.  New York State was once considered the fifth best in tobacco control efforts; due to these budget cuts, it has tumbled to 22nd. 

What is most inexplicable about this approach is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and other revenues.

In this year’s budget, the Administration is expecting that additional revenues from legal settlements with the tobacco companies will start to flow again this year, with a 125 million new dollars expected.

Yet, the governor proposes no new money to fight tobacco use.

In another health area, the governor is proposing a massive cut to the state’s “evidence-based cancer services” program.  That program offers breast, cervical and colon cancer screenings to those who need it.  It is a program that already comes nowhere near meeting the needs of the eligible population, yet faces the budget axe.

Cutting colon cancer screening, and keeping funding for the tobacco control program at only 20 percent of the funding level that experts at the CDC recommend, means that some New Yorkers who may not have gotten cancer are now at a greater risk.

As lawmakers move ahead on developing a final budget, they should make sure that new revenues are added to the state’s tobacco control and cancer screening programs.  Not only is it the right thing to do, those investments will save lives down the road. 

The state has the money.  The public has a need.  The state should spend it wisely and follow the advice of the nation’s experts.

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

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