Another Georgian is being diagnosed with cancer every 10 minutes. Yet, according to a study recently released by the American Cancer Society (ACS) Cancer Action Network, Georgia fares poorly when it comes to implementing laws and policies aimed at preventing and treating cancer. After evaluating all 50 states in eight issue areas, the organization gave Georgia a passing grade in only one: the quality of care for cancer patients.
While we can indeed boast an increasingly high quality of cancer care across Georgia thanks to our oncologists, cancer centers and preeminent research and health care institutions, the state also deserves credit for consistently using its annual allotment from the nation’s tobacco companies as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). However, the portion of this allotment that is used to support cancer-related activities has shrunk to just nine cents out of every dollar, even though cancer is the No. 1 health consequence of tobacco use.
The Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (Georgia CORE) published a report last year that highlights how more than $3 billion from the MSA has been distributed. We found that only $14.1 million of Georgia’s MSA allotment of $151 million in fiscal 2019 went to cancer treatment and prevention. That’s less than 10 percent.
What’s worse, while tobacco funds directed to cancer have continually gone down, Georgia has yet to raise taxes on tobacco products, enact smoke-free laws and fund smoking cessation programs, as pointed out by the ACS study. Most astounding, the study found that Georgia is one of only six states that has not allocated any money toward a tobacco cessation program – one of the MSA’s main directives.
The good news is, in the two decades since the first MSA dollars came to Georgia, we have better prevention, understanding and treatment of cancer across the state, particularly in rural Georgia. This is at least partially because of the accelerated accrual to clinical trials brought on by a collaborative research network among academic and community oncologists built by Georgia CORE and our partners.
So, if we had more funding directed towards cancer care and prevention, what could we do? With the guidance of experts in oncology, public health, health care policy and financing, Georgia CORE identified five actions as especially worthy of investment:
Screen more Georgians for colorectal cancer. If we were to screen 85% of all Georgians ages 45 and over, a projected 8,800 additional lives would be saved, and health care costs would lower by $1.3 billion.
Help more Georgians avoid or beat lung cancer. Georgia has more diagnoses and deaths than the national average. We can bring that number down with tobacco cessation programs and more screenings for the high-risk group of people ages 55 to 74 who smoke at least 30 packs of cigarettes a year – an estimated 366,000 Georgians.
Address Georgia’s disparity in breast cancer deaths. In Georgia, African-American women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer are more likely to die from it, so we need to screen more African-American Georgians earlier.
Protect more African-American Georgia men from prostate cancer. African-American men are 1.6 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men and 2.4 times more likely to die from it. Education and early screenings can save these lives.
Reverse Georgia’s decline in cervical cancer screening. Cervical cancer is preventable and, when detected early, highly curable. We can work to engage providers, increase screenings and increase vaccinations for human papillomavirus HPV, which causes nearly all cervical cancers that will claim the lives of 140 Georgia women this year, according to ACS estimates.
Preventive in nature, these five actions can help Georgians better protect their health, improve their quality of life and potentially avoid costly treatment later, making them each a strong return on investment.
The current picture of need is really a picture of opportunity. Simply put: Directing more tobacco settlement funds to help more Georgians catch cancer early – or avoid it altogether – presents a tremendous return on investment. This is especially true in lessening costly treatment for lower-income Georgians who rely on Medicaid to pay for their care.
We can and must do better, Georgia. Increasing investments in cancer care and prevention produces economic benefits for the state while saving the lives of Georgians. That’s an incredible return on investment.
The writer is president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education.