Supporting health starts with eliminating tobacco use

As chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, with our global headquarters in Atlanta, and our advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), I have learned one public health truth that stands out among all others: A comprehensive and effective cancer control plan for any state must start with implementing strong tobacco control policies.

A new report published by ACS CAN demonstrates, however, that the legislatures in Georgia and 11 other Southeastern states are contributing to an increased cancer burden in this part of the country by failing to implement evidence-based policies to reduce and prevent tobacco use. The result of this inaction has led to some of the highest tobacco use rates in the United States and contributed to cancer death rates that are significantly above the national average.

The report, the 15th edition of How Do You Measure Up, shows that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have failed to earn a single “green” rating in any of the following three critical tobacco control measures:

Increasing the price of tobacco through regular and significant tobacco tax increases

Implementing comprehensive smoke-free policies, and

Fully funding and implementing statewide tobacco prevention and cessation programs in accordance with best practice recommendations from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This means that the states have failed to pass life-saving legislation that has proven to protect youth and adults from the leading preventable cause of death in the country.

Tobacco use is responsible for more than 480,000 premature deaths annually in this country and one-third of all cancer deaths. In fact, tobacco is linked to a dozen different types of cancer, including cancers of the pancreas, liver, stomach and lung. Based on data from the National Vital Statistics System from 2010 to 2014, the lung cancer mortality rate in the 12 Southeastern states combined is about 20 percent higher than it is in the rest of the country.

For patients and their families, the costs associated with direct cancer care are staggering. In 2014 U.S. cancer patients paid nearly $4 billion out-of-pocket for cancer treatments. Cancer also represents a significant proportion of total U.S. health care spending. Roughly $87.8 billion was spent in 2014 in the U.S. on cancer-related health care, most of that paid by employers, insurance companies, and taxpayer-funded public programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and by cancer patients and their families.

Clearly, there is both a moral and economic imperative to reducing the cancer burden.

Here in Georgia, where smoking costs $3.18 billion annually and nearly 30 percent of cancer deaths are a direct result of tobacco use, our elected officials have a tremendous opportunity to lead a tobacco control revolution in the Southeastern United States. By following the blueprint laid out in the How Do You Measure Up report, Georgia can show leadership in implementing strong tobacco control policies and helping to save thousands of lives.

As much of the rest of the country has already learned, the common-sense, life-saving policies outlined above are the right move for Georgia as well as the rest of the Southeastern United States.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, cigarettes are more addictive and deadly than ever before. It’s time we finish what we started more than 50 years ago when the Surgeon General first announced the link between cigarettes and deadly diseases like cancer. It’s time for lawmakers to stand up for the health of this state by standing up to the tobacco industry.

Combating tobacco use is no simple task, especially when you consider the tobacco industry spends an estimated $333 million a year marketing their products in Georgia alone. That equates to nearly $1 million every day.

As the CEO of an Atlanta-based organization, I strongly encourage members of this business community to join our efforts in encouraging our state leaders to do the right thing: Support good health through strong tobacco control policies that are proven to reduce cancer incidence and death so we can all prosper and thrive.

To view the complete How Do You Measure Up report and details on Georgia’s grades, visit www.acscan.org