June 20, 2019
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Maine among worst states for lung cancer, study finds

Stock photo | BDN
Stock photo | BDN
A new study from the American Lung Association finds that the rate of lung cancer diagnosis is higher in Maine than the national average. Maine also ranks high in the rate of tobacco use among adults, a key risk factor in lung cancer.

About 1,400 people in Maine will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018 and 900 will die with the disease, according to the predictions of a new study that finds an alarmingly high rate of the illness in the state.

The new report from the American Lung Association, using data from 2009 to 2013, shows that the rate of lung cancer diagnosis in Maine is 74.9 cases per 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of 63 cases per 100,000. That means Maine ranks poorly compared to other states in the “State of Lung Cancer” study, with the lowest rate of 29.1 in Utah and the highest rate of 96.8 in Kentucky.

“This report makes it clear the burden of lung cancer is not the same everywhere,” Lance Boucher, director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Maine, said in a press release.

The study should spark immediate conversation in the state’s legislative and policy circles, he said, particularly addressing risk factors such as tobacco use and exposure to radon gas and secondhand smoke.

In this country, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women, after prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women, according to the American Cancer Society. In Maine, however, lung cancer is more common, and more deadly, than either breast or prostate cancer. Often diagnosed late in its progression, lung cancer is difficult to treat effectively and accounts for about 154,000 U.S. deaths annually. About 234,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Tobacco use remains the single greatest risk factor for developing lung cancer, Boucher said in a phone conversation Wednesday. With an adult smoking rate in 2015 of 19.5 percent in Maine, compared with the national rate of 16.8 percent, he said, more must be done to discourage Mainers from starting to smoke and to make it easier to kick the deadly habit.

Recent diversion of public health dollars from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to pay for other budget needs has resulted in too little being spent on tobacco prevention and cessation, Boucher said. The fund was established in 1998 to receive approximately $50 million annually from a national settlement with the tobacco industry and to prioritize its use for public health programming, but public health spending has been cut under the administration of Gov. Paul LePage and the fund has been targeted for other uses.

Maine receives an additional $197 million a year from taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, Boucher said, but spends only $5.3 million on programming to combat tobacco use. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Maine spend $15.9 million a year on tobacco prevention and cessation to counteract the impact of the industry’s multi-billion-dollar national marketing efforts.

“We’re not spending nearly enough of our tobacco revenues to combat the tobacco epidemic here in Maine,” Boucher said. “The perception among many lawmakers seems to be that we have solved the tobacco problem, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

The study notes other factors that may contribute to lung cancer rates in Maine, including exposure to radon gas and poor air quality.

Maine got higher marks in other areas surveyed in the report, including early-stage diagnosis, the use of surgery as a first course of treatment and the five-year survival rate.

Maine also scored well for the number of sites where high-risk individuals can be screened for lung cancer. National guidelines recommend screening for heavy smokers 55 and older who either are still smoking or have quit within the past 15 years. Screening contributes to early diagnosis, lessens the duration of treatment and increases the chances of surviving lung cancer, Boucher said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Maine Tobacco Helpline, administered through the Portland-based MaineHealth Center for Tobacco Independence with funding support from the Maine CDC, assists Mainers who wish to stop smoking, through phone consultation and support as well as by providing free access to nicotine patches, gum and lozenges. It can be reached at 1-800-207-1230.

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