|A Conversation with...Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr.|
The President's Cancer Panel, a three-person advisory committee appointed by the President, oversees the National Cancer Program and reports directly to the President any delays or blockages in its rapid execution. Each year, the Panel holds a series of meetings and writes a report to the President on a chosen topic of concern in the cancer community. This year's report, Promoting Healthy Lifestyles: Policy, Program, and Personal Recommendations for Reducing Cancer Risk, examines the effects of obesity, diet and nutrition, physical activity, tobacco use, and tobacco smoke exposure on cancer risk. Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery at Howard University College of Medicine, has served as chair of the Panel since 2002 and was recently reappointed for a third term.
What did the Panel learn from its 2006/2007 series of meetings?
We invited 45 representatives from government agencies, medicine, academia, industry, and the advocacy community to present expert testimony on obesity, diet, physical activity, and tobacco. Much of this testimony focused on recent research linking obesity resulting from unhealthy eating and physical inactivity to increased risk of several cancers, including breast, prostate, colon, and liver cancer. We also learned that many entities not traditionally considered part of the National Cancer Program - educators; employers; city planners; the food, beverage, and tobacco industries; and the media - contribute to the national cancer burden and will need to play a role in the promotion and adoption of healthy living.
From experts in the tobacco field, we learned of mixed progress. For example, the number of Americans living in smoke-free municipalities is rapidly increasing, but at the same time, most state tobacco control programs are significantly underfunded. Speakers also emphasized the need to protect youth and other populations of special concern, such as racial and ethnic minority groups, the poor, and persons with mental illness, from the aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns of tobacco companies.
The Panel chose to focus on obesity and tobacco. Why did the Panel choose these two areas to examine?
We know that there are many other lifestyle factors that affect cancer risk, but we decided to focus specifically on obesity and tobacco because an estimated one-third of preventable cancer deaths are related to diet and another one-third are related to tobacco. This means that more than two-thirds of cancer deaths could be prevented through changes in lifestyle. Alarming obesity trends and stalled declines in smoking rates indicate that America is in need of a significant culture change.
What can governmental and nongovernmental organizations do to help individuals and families live healthier lifestyles?
We encourage policymakers at all levels of government to pass legislation and implement policies that help Americans adopt healthier lifestyles. The Panel believes that Congress should grant the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products and marketing, as well as provide subsidies for production of fruits and vegetables that would make healthy foods more available and affordable. State and local governments must increase funding for tobacco prevention programs and pass ordinances to make all workplaces and public spaces 100 percent smoke-free. Schools should reinstate physical education classes and offer more healthy food options for students. Medicare and Medicaid, as well as private health insurance companies, should provide coverage for nutrition counseling and smoking cessation interventions. Primary care providers need to counsel patients about maintaining a healthy weight and offer smoking cessation services. Individuals and families must also take personal responsibility for their own health by eating healthy foods, exercising, and not smoking.