November 20, 2003

Get Smoked Out

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This morning, ashtrays all across America are feeling neglected. That’s because today is the American Cancer Society’s 27th annual Great American Smokeout, a time when smokers are encouraged to quit even if it’s just for one day.

According to the ACS website, the Smokeout was first conceived in 1971 by Arthur P. Mullaney. Mullaney asked people in his community in Massachusetts to quit smoking for one day and to donate the money they would have spent on cigarettes to a local high school instead. The California division of the ACS picked up the idea in 1976, and in 1977 the Great American Smokeout was held nationwide for the first time.

Although the ACS is dedicated to information and research on cancer of all types, the Smokeout is one of their biggest events. “The perception is that we’re very much focused on tobacco, and that’s very true,” said Sherry Tomasky, the ACS regional advocacy director. “This is due to the significant connection between tobacco use and cancer.”

Recent research has shown that roughly a third of all cancer deaths are related to tobacco use. “Out of all the people that died from cancer, over 30 percent of those people got their cancer from smoking,” Tomasky said. “The only way that we’re going to have any meaningful impact on reducing cancer is if we do something about smoking.”

And that’s exactly what they’re doing. The first year that the Smokeout was held, somewhere between 1-2 million people stopped smoking for the day. “At this point, we’re estimating that probably about 6 or 7 million people will stop smoking [this year],” Tomasky said. Of that 6 or 7 million, about six percent will quit permanently. “Annually, only about two percent of regular smokers successfully quit, so we have tripled the success rate on one day,” she explained.

However, the anti-smoking message of the Great American Smokeout represents only a small fraction of what the ACS does. While most people are familiar with this yearly event, they may not be aware of the many other diverse projects the groups undertakes.

The ACS is a nationwide health organization staffed mainly by volunteers. Its long term mission, according to Tomasky, is to “eradicate cancer as a major health problem in the United States.” The ACS also set shorter-term goals in 2000 to reduce the incidence of cancer by 25 percent, reduce the number of people who die from cancer by 50 percent and measurably improve the quality of life for all cancer patients by the year 2015. They hope to accomplish all of these goals through four types of work: education, patient services, research and advocacy.

The educational branch of the ACS includes providing information to health care providers, as well as members of the general community. “The goal is to help people understand that they have a lot of control over their risk of getting cancer,” Tomasky said. “There are very specific ways that people can help reduce their risk of getting cancer and we want to help them understand what those are and encourage them to do so.”

Education is also fundamentally important to the patient services that the ACS provides. Volunteers work directly with cancer patients and their families to help them understand the “often complicated and frightening” world of health care and cancer treatment. The Great American Smokeout is just one example of a program designed to raise awareness in the community about cancer risks.

In recent years, the ACS has also begun to focus on the growing problem of obesity. According to Tomasky, recent research has shown that roughly 1/3 of cancer cases are related to obesity. This is comparable to the percentage caused by tobacco use as well. “That means that 2/3 of all cancers are completely within our control,” Tomasky said. Since these are both lifestyle issues, “we know exactly how to prevent them from happening and we can prevent the deaths that result from them,” she explained.

To help assure that new advances continue to be made in cancer research and treatment, the ACS also makes sizeable donations to cancer research. This funding is usually awarded as individual research grants, often to researchers who are just starting their careers. “We think that those are the kind of people who really provide the newest ideas and the newest research to the field, and we want to help them bring those ideas to fruition,” Tomasky explained. In the last century, roughly 31 researchers that received ACS funding went on to win Nobel Prizes for their research.

The ACS’s involvement in advocacy is partially responsible for the new NYS law banning smoking in public places. However, they are also involved in many other projects. “We work on all levels of government: local, state and federal to promote policies that will help reduce cancer incidence, policies that will improve screening rates for cancer and policies that will invest more money in cancer research,” Tomasky said.

One of their biggest projects is securing government funding for cancer research. According to Tomasky, the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has doubled over the last six years, a fact which she attributes in part to “all of the cancer survivors and cancer activists who have made NIH funding a priority.”

Another, more local project deals with colon cancer. In New York State many private insurance companies have policies that don’t cover colonoscopies, a procedure that screens for colon cancer. The ACS recommends that every adult should get a yearly colonoscopy beginning at age 50. However, people are unlikely to do so if it is not covered by their insurance. “We’re working very hard right now not only with the legislature, but with the Health Plan Association, which is an organization that represents insurance companies, to try to find a way to increase the rates of people who get screened for colon cancer,” Tomasky said.

In Tompkins County, the rate of people getting colon cancer is about equal with the state average. However, the mortality rate for colon cancer is much higher than the state average. “One of the reasons that that is true is that people are not getting screened. They’re not catching the cancer at an early stage,” Tomasky said. If detected early, the survival rate for colon cancer is around 95 percent. However, the survival rate drops to roughly five percent if the cancer is not promptly diagnosed.

Archived article by Courtney Potts