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World Cancer Day and New York's failure

The world focused its attention on cancer last week. World Cancer Day was a way to educate the public about the threats posed by cancer and create pressure on policymakers to adopt science-based approaches to reducing the incidence of the diseases and to cut deaths from cancer. 

The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the organizer of World Cancer Day, laid out its mission, that it hoped that the Day “encourages everyone to ask their governments to improve health equity, to make it easier for all populations to enjoy affordable and accessible cancer services, and to reduce disparities in cancer incidence and mortality.” 

While there are hundreds of different kinds of cancers, including many that are the result of environmental exposures or genetics, there is one that far and away is the biggest killer: lung cancer. Last week, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer released its worldwide data on the incidence and deaths caused by cancer. While there is a lot to be learned from the IARC, what is crystal clear is that lung cancer is the single biggest killer worldwide. 

According to its report, “Lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer death (1.8 million deaths, 18.7% of the total cancer deaths) followed by colorectal cancer (9.3%), liver cancer (7.8%), breast cancer (6.9%) and stomach cancer (6.8%). Lung cancer’s re-emergence as the most common cancer is likely related to persistent tobacco use in Asia.” 

The situation in the U.S. is consistent with the world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that cancer is the second leading cause of death in America. Here in New York, the most recent cancer statistics from the American Cancer Society estimated that the top five cancer killers account for half of all the estimated cancer deaths in New York, with lung cancer far and away the biggest killer. According to the group, over 6,000 New Yorkers will die from lung cancer – which is more than the combined deaths from colon and breast cancers. 

Lung cancer is most often caused by tobacco use. But lung cancer is not the only cancer that can be caused by tobacco use. According to the CDC, tobacco use results in cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, stomach, kidney, pancreas, liver, bladder, cervix, colon and rectum, and a type of leukemia. And tobacco users aren’t the only ones at risk, exposure to tobacco smoke by those who are non-smokers raises their risk of cancer. 

Of course, while the statistics may be new, the devastation resulting from tobacco use and its impacts on cancer go back a very long way in America. It has been well-studied and the policies that should be implemented are also well-researched. 

The CDC offers the states the scientifically-based best practices for reducing tobacco use. The CDC recommends that New York State spend between $142 million and $203 million annually on its tobacco control efforts. 

Governor Hochul’s budget rejects that expert recommendation. 

Governor Hochul has consistently failed to advance tobacco control funding that comes anywhere near what the CDC recommends. According to an independent review of the state’s tobacco control funding, New York’s budget is “only 17% of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) recommended level for the state, even as New York faces ongoing health and economic effects from tobacco use. The low funding levels in recent years have posed challenges for the Program to make progress across its areas of focus.” 

Why does Governor Hochul fail to follow the expert advice of the CDC? It can’t be from a lack of money. Her proposed state budget this year totals more than $233 billion. It also can’t be that the state doesn’t collect enough from tobacco users – through taxes and other revenues – to fund efforts to help them quit and to keep kids from starting. Last year, the state increased its cigarette tax by $1, making it the highest in the nation. 

New York annually collects nearly one billion dollars in tobacco taxes and received last year another $740 million as the result of a litigation settlement (the Master Settlement Agreement) with Big Tobacco. 

New York State has the money to adequately fund its tobacco control efforts, but it chooses not to. 

State lawmakers are wrapping up their budget hearings this week. New Yorkers should hope that the final budget agreement follows science and invests an adequate portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars it gets from smokers into programs that will help them kick the addiction and keep kids from starting. Rejecting science and starving the program will result in the needless misery and early deaths of far too many of lawmakers’ constituents.

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

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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