Working to Reduce the Cancer Burden Caused by Tobacco

Every year, 70% of smokers in the United States visit a health care professional. Many, however, leave without receiving any smoking cessation assistance. Approximately half of smokers diagnosed with cancer continue to smoke, and only some health care centers provide these patients with services to quit. “This is a missed opportunity to help people become healthier and live longer,” said physician and researcher Michael Fiore.

Tobacco use in the United States continues to cause unparalleled harm to the nation’s health, directly causing one out of every five deaths. Moreover, tobacco causes at least 20 different types of cancer, including up to 90% of all lung cancers. Cigarette smoking is the main culprit, being responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in this country, including nearly 42,000 deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke. Michael predicts that “eliminating smoking in America would, over time, reduce all cancer deaths by almost one-third.”

As a leader in tobacco control, Michael helped to spearhead a working group of the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors that recommended research priorities for this field. The group’s 2016 report discussed a wide range of research gaps. One of these was optimizing the effectiveness of the evidence-based tobacco cessation interventions that already exist. The report also highlighted groups that disproportionately bear the burden of cancer and other health consequences of continued tobacco use.

NCI has a long history of supporting tobacco control research and launched several new activities in 2017 relevant to the priorities the working group identified. These include additional funding to NCI-Designated Cancer Centers to bolster smoking cessation activities and focused efforts to reduce tobacco use by vulnerable groups, including the young, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and individuals with mental health issues or HIV.

Michael is hopeful about NCI’s response to the working group’s recommendations and commitment to reducing the cancer burden in the United States. “Recognizing that tobacco use is a chronic disease—and not just a bad habit—informs our ongoing research to identify and implement the best prevention and cessation strategies,” he said.