Cancer center director speaks to Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committe
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Sept. 3, 2014) — The head of UK’s Markey Cancer Center says his agency supports an increase in the state cigarette tax and a statewide smoking ban as part of its effort to significantly reduce cancer deaths in the commonwealth.
Dr. B. Mark Evers, the head of the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky, recommended that state lawmakers support both initiatives when he spoke today before the state legislative Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee.
“We are highly supportive, and we hope that you will be supportive as well, of (these) initiatives that we think will improve the overall health of Kentuckians,” he told lawmakers.
Stating that Kentucky is now first nationally in overall cancer mortality and first in incidence rates of cancer in all sites (i.e., lung, breast, pancreas, etc.), Evers said raising the cost of cigarettes and a statewide smoking ban could help cut Kentucky cancer deaths by 50 percent — his agency’s goal over the next five years.
Kentucky has the 12th lowest cigarette excise tax and the highest percentage of cigarette use by adults in the U.S., Evers said, adding that there is an indirect relationship between excise tax and smoking rates in various states. The smoke-free goal is something Evers said he’d like for Kentucky to have in place by the time Markey competes for renewal of its National Cancer Institute designation.
“Both of these agenda items would certainly improve the health of all Kentuckians,” he said.
Both initiatives directly factor into a new strategic plan at Markey Cancer Center which Evers and his colleagues have named “Conquering Cancer in the Commonwealth.” The plan is focused on “major cancer killers” in the Bluegrass State—including lung, head and neck, colorectal, breast, and cervical cancer.
Lung cancer alone accounts for about 35 percent of Kentucky cancer deaths, said Evers. That compares to about 28 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer nationally.
The CDC estimates more than 28 percent of adult Kentuckians smoke and approximately 8,000 Kentucky adults die each year from smoking-related illnesses, said Evers. The greatest incidence of tobacco-related cancers is in Eastern Kentucky, he said.
Pointing out that the state’s smoking rate continuing to hover around 28 percent as it has for several years, State Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, asked Evers what progress is being made in smoking cessation. Evers said significantly more Kentuckians are covered by smoke-free policies locally, and he is “enthusiastic” about an increased effort in Appalachia toward smoking cessation.
When asked what it will take to move the percentage of Kentucky smokers to less than 10 percent, Evers recommended three things: increasing the cigarette excise tax, a statewide smoking ban, and instituting lung cancer screening projects like those in place at UK and the University of Louisville.
“Those three things are really going to help drive down those numbers,” he said.
Dr. Don Miller, MD, the head of the Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville, and Evers work together as leaders of the Kentucky Lung Cancer Research Program, a program funded through the Lung Cancer Research Fund established by the 2000 Kentucky General Assembly. Miller said the funding provided by the General Assembly has a major impact on cancer research.
“I don’t think we had any idea (then) of the impact that this program would have on both institutions. And we’ve gone, I think, at both institutions from having essentially no lung cancer research to having very robust research programs that make a difference for people in this commonwealth,” said Miller.
Committee Co-Chair Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, asked both researchers what UK and UL are doing on gene manipulation. “I think maybe down in Texas — maybe Houston — they are doing some work on that,” said Hornback. “Is that the way we’re going, maybe?”
Miller said his researchers are “very interested in genomics” and mutations affecting cancer. He told Hornback that a group of scientists at UL has discovered how to “switch genes off, so they are able to take genes that have been activated, that are mutated and turned on, that are causing cancer and use the switch sequence in those genes to flip the switch off.” He said those treatments will be tested in trials in the next year or so.
“We believe that has great potential,” said Miller.
The Kentucky Lung Cancer Research Program receives funding from Kentucky’s share of a 1998 settlement between 46 states and the nation’s largest tobacco companies. That settlement allows states to recoup Medicaid dollars spent on smoking-related illnesses, including lung cancer.