A prominently placed advertisement by the Lung Cancer Alliance in yesterday's New York Times conveys the important message that lung cancer, which kills more people than many other forms of cancer combined, is worthy of more attention and research than it currently receives. Unfortunately, however, the well-intentioned advertisement is also misleading and has disturbing implications.
The ad features a photograph of a lung cancer patient who has never smoked ("This lung cancer patient can't stop smoking. Because she never started."), and states, "There's no question that millions of lung cancer patients have died because of smoking. But it's also true that over 50 percent of people now being diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers or former smokers." However, it is extremely misleading to lump the two groups together by saying that "over 50 percent" of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in non-smokers and former smokers. In fact, since approximately 90% of lung cancer cases are due to smoking, the majority of those in this "over 50 percent" group are former smokers, as opposed to non-smokers. Further, using the word "but" at the beginning of the second sentence implies that lung cancer diagnosed in former smokers is not actually also due to smoking, ignoring the fact that an elevated lung cancer risk lingers in former smokers long after they quit smoking.
The ad continues: "In spite of this, the stigma of smoking is still so great that lung cancer is underfunded, under-researched, and generally ignored by Congress." It then discusses the toll of lung cancer, and concludes, "It's time to treat lung cancer research with the same urgency that we bring to every other major cancer. Because the most lethal cancer in the country can no longer be hidden behind a smoke screen."
It is odd that the advertisement focuses on the lung cancer cases supposedly unrelated to smoking as the reason that lung cancer should receive further attention and research. Even if all cases of lung cancer were due to smoking, would that make the disease and the more than 160,000 deaths it causes annually in America not as worthy of further attention, research, and resources devoted to its prevention and treatment? The line of reasoning in the ad seems to reinforce the unfortunate stigma on smokers who develop lung cancer as being solely personally responsible for their own demise, their fates somehow less worthy of attention than those of non-smokers or those who were able to overcome their addiction to tobacco.
While lung cancer in non-smokers is disturbing and worthy of more research, it is not the primary reason for the urgency for devoting more attention and resources towards preventing and treating lung cancer. The fact that lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in America, and that we know which one specific behavior causes the large majority of its cases, should be enough of an impetus for us to focus more on lung cancer as the urgent public health issue that it is.
Rivka Weiser is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.
To view more articles, visit ACSH Health Issues on tobacco.