Just weeks after receiving happy news that for the first time in decades, cancer rates in the US have declined, a not-so-happy report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) brought the bad news that worldwide, cancer rates will likely more than double by 2030. Whereas in the year 2007, the world saw 12 million new cases of cancer and about eight million cancer deaths, the WHO report projects that at the current rate, by 2030, the number of new cancer cases per year will catapult to 27 million, with 17 million cancer deaths annually and 75 million people living with cancer within five years after diagnosis. Also, by 2010, says the report, cancer will become the number one killer worldwide, outpacing heart disease and causing more deaths than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
The projected spike reflects the fact that cancer rates have increased dramatically in many poorer and less industrialized nations, in spite of the questionable improvements witnessed in the US. The countries projected to see the most dramatic cancer increases include Russia, China, and India. Apparently, in 1970 only 15 percent of all new cancer deaths occurred in less developed nations, but now more than half of cancer cases and two-thirds of cancer deaths occur in these places, with that percentage rising rapidly. “The burden of cancer is shifting from developed countries to developing nations,” said Dr. Otis Webb Brawley of the American Cancer Society, in response to the report.
The primary author of the new report, Dr. Peter Boyle, who heads the International Agency for Research on Cancer, points to the dramatic increase of smokers in the third world and in less developed nations as the number one issue pushing cancer rates in these places. “The big tobacco companies started to move pretty strongly into these low- and medium-resource countries in the early 1990s at about the same time that we were working very aggressively to reduce tobacco use in Western countries,” he says. Currently, about 12 percent of cancer cases in less developed countries result from smoking, but experts anticipate a momentous rise in that figure–and given that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, this is significant. Dr. Boyle notes that it typically takes about 40 years for lung cancers to develop as a result of smoking, and so those who started smoking in the 1980s and early ’90s will likely see the effects around the 2030 target date.
While the rates of other cancers associated with the Western lifestyle, such as breast cancer, have doubled or tripled since 1970, smoking-related cancers remain the greatest threat. It’s almost unthinkable, and certainly unconscionable, that tobacco companies so insistently and cavalierly pawned their wares in poorer nations at a time when cigarettes were getting such bad press in the developed world, and even more disturbing to consider the results.
To give some perspective on the scope of the problem, take China, which has 350 million smokers, according to the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology, and an additional 460 million citizens who regularly inhale secondhand smoke. You’re looking at an estimated 2.2 million deaths a year in China due to smoking by 2020, with and additional 100,000 plus people dying from the effects of passive smoking. Each year, China spends about $32.5 billion on smoking-related expenses–including treatment for diseases caused by smoking. These off-the-charts smoking problems directly hail back to US tobacco companies. In the two years between 1985 and 1987, the United States increased tobacco exports to Asia by 91.3%, with the result that 75 percent of Chinese males over the age of 30 took up smoking. And while the country recently has taken some measures to curb smoking rates, the powerful tobacco lobbies have intervened enough to keep a quarter of the population overall still lighting up. Cigarettes are cheap and available in China, while anti-smoking information largely is not.
The story is similar in other large, developing nations. Smoking rates in Russia have more than doubled since the collapse of the Soviet Union–when private tobacco companies finally gained a foothold. India anticipates that 10 percent of all deaths in the country will be directly related to cigarette smoking within the next two years. In Africa, there was a 70 percent increase in cigarette consumption between 1970 and 1985, and in Latin America, cigarette consumption outpaced population growth by 30 percent during that same time period. Consider that tobacco-related cancers now cause a full third of all cancer deaths in Europe and the United States, and that developing nations are headed in that same direction but with larger populations at risk, and therefore, staggering numbers of tobacco-related deaths forecast in these places. And all these deaths would be preventable–if profit motive was not steering the boat.
The head of the American Cancer Society, Peter Brawley, suggests the need to make “vaccines that prevent cancer available to low- and middle-income nations, to promote smoking cessation programs worldwide, and to invest in cancer research aimed at reducing the global burden of cancer.” And Dr. Boyle asserts the need for increased screening and education programs worldwide. He points to the fact that increased efforts in Europe significantly curtailed smoking-related cancer deaths.
A final note is that while it’s easy to target smoking as a culprit as it’s so preventable, it’s certainly not the only preventable issue. In many developing countries, poor air quality from emissions adds to the risk of lung cancers. As Western diet and lifestyle spread to other nations, so will all the other lifestyle-related conditions in epidemic proportions–from obesity-related diseases to other forms of cancer. And then there’s the issue of the tens of thousands of cancer-causing chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, and synthetic hormones released into water and food supplies in every country in the world by deliberately oblivious industries and complicit governments.
The need for education is key across the globe.