Is this country serious about preventing cancer? Americans who stop smoking are serious. So are mothers and fathers pushing for school containment of asbestos that is exposing their children to risks of cancer later in life. So too are community groups fighting toxic dumps and emissions.
But what about our national government and its helmsman, Ronald Reagan. Well, he has weakened major cancer prevention programs by reducing enforcement, not issuing protective standards and reducing research on prevention. What you say, friendly Ronald, against cancer prevention? Yes, in deed, if not in rhetoric.
Here are some examples. Workplace-caused cancer, harmful food additives, contaminated drinking water, asbestos removal, air pollution, pesticide poisonings and other programs have been given the back of the hand by the former Hollywood actor. Notwithstanding press disclosures and editorials, he won’t even spend a few million dollars notifying 250,000 American workers who were found to be exposed to the risk of cancer, among other diseases, in 500 factories and mines surveyed under a ten year project completed in 1984 by federal government physicians.
Mr. Reagan lets his Surgeon General speak strongly against the addiction of tobacco, but permits the good doctor to do little else against the tobacco industry.
Before and during Reagan’s tenure in office, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) budget has been overwhelmingly spent on research to cure cancer, not prevent it from basic research to applied advocacy. But hardly a week goes by without a press release or article by NCI grantees announcing some progress in the battle for a cure.
All this hoopla finally got to Dr. John Bailar, a physician and statistician at the Harvard School of Public Health. He published an article last month slamming the cancer research establishment for failing to level with the American people. There has been virtually no progress against cancer and cancer deaths have been climbing even after taking into account that Americans are living longer, Bailar asserts. He told a Nightline television audience recently that the cancer researchers owe the people an apology.
The cancer researchers fought back, saying there is some progress against some cancers afflicting children and some forms of leukemia. They added correctly that the biggest increase in cancer is lung cancer.
Bailar replied that the lung cancer data make his point; these deaths are increasing and medicine can do nothing about it. What can be done is to launch major programs that discourage youngsters from smoking and encourage adults to drop the habit.
Prevention of cancer by psychologically effective national missions and by implementing engineering standards against environmental and workplace cancer conditions have one liability. They do not sell drugs for drug companies and they do not keep doctors, hospitals and clinics busy. The entire “cancer industry” is naturally not geared to reducing its business. Venality does not have to be a major factor; just self-interest and the myopia of specialization are sufficient.
We need a militant, smart cancer prevention industry — fueled by an informed demand of patients, consumers and taxpayers. We, as a nation, are not applying a fraction of what we know about preventing cancer. Yet we pour most of the brainpower and funds into the search for a cure where we know the least.
The Reagan government knows of dozens of cancer causing chemicals reaching workers every day and it knows engineering ways to shield the workers or block the emission of these chemicals. Yet the Reagan government refuses to issue law enforcement standards against such preventable violence. And these tragic stories of indifference or callousness are repeated often within this regime’s dereliction of legal duty to prevent cancer under long standing laws passed by both Democrats and Republicans in past Congresses.
Once again it is up to a chorus of citizen voices reaching a critical mass that neither government nor industry nor even Ronald Reagan can ignore.