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Can Legislation Reduce Lung Cancer Rates?

Massachusetts is considering raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. (Getty Images)

Since the middle of the 20th century, we’ve known that smoking is bad for us. That’s when the surgeon general first began raising the alarm about smoking’s connection to lung cancer and other chronic diseases. Despite these warnings, according to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, (a nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the ACS), smoking has caused the premature deaths of more than 20 million Americans since 1964. And about 15 percent of Americans still light up regularly. Educational efforts to curb tobacco use have somehow not reached these smokers. But other tools in the tobacco-prevention arsenal that have proven to lower rates of smoking and lung cancer are legislative measures. Continual efforts to restrict access to tobacco may help bring the rate of smoking even lower.

Cathy Callaway, director of state and local campaigns for ACS CAN, says that instituting laws to restrict the sale of tobacco, raise taxes on its sale and improve access to smoking cessation services for smokers really can lower rates of lung cancer as evidenced through previous legislation. “As states have passed and implemented these policies, we’ve learned from their experiences.” She points to California as a leader in the fight against smoking.


“California has had the longest running tobacco control program and they have been able to show a reduction in lung cancer rates. They’ve been reducing those rates four times faster than the rest of the United States,” she says. According to 2014 statistics from the California Cancer Registry of the California Department of Public Health, about 17,000 new cases of lung cancer – 11 percent of all cancers – were diagnosed in the state that year. That’s still a lot of people, but rates of lung cancer incidence have dropped 40 percent in California from 1988 (when California began taxing the sale of cigarettes) through 2014. “Rates in the rest of the country dropped by only 19 percent between 1988 and 2013,” the ACS reports.

These reductions are in part due to the implementation of what Callaway calls a “three-legged stool” approach to tobacco prevention policies. “We prioritize our policy efforts on three different policies, the first being regular and significant increases in tobacco taxes. The second is implementing smoke-free and tobacco-free policies,” which prohibit smoking in specified buildings and spaces, she says. “The third is allocating adequate funding for tobacco prevention and cessation services” to help smokers kick the habit.

Callaway says that although most states do have some tobacco-control policies in place, ACS CAN is working to expand that coverage and help all states adopt comprehensive legislation to reduce the burden of smoking. The organization is also working with federal and municipal authorities to enact legislation at all levels of government.

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