CNN Food and Health

Debaters Agree Cancer War Should Stress Prevention

Aired Nov. 14, 1995
8:41 a.m. EST (1341 GMT)

Abstract : The author of the book "Cancer Wars" says the government should concentrate more on prevention. The new head of the American Cancer Society agrees that prevention offers the best hope for the moment.

Full Text:

BILL HEMMER, Anchor: Just the word, cancer, makes some people shiver. Actually having the disease triggers a fear like no other. About 25 years ago, the government declared war on cancer and paid billions of dollars to fight the deadly disease. Some say there's progress; others say rewards have been slight. Two guests are with us this morning to debate this issue.

Joining us from our Chicago bureau is Dr. Raymond Lenhard. He's the newly appointed president of the American Cancer Society. Also, Robert Proctor joins us from State College, Pennsylvania. He's the author of Cancer Wars and a professor of history and science at Pennsylvania State University.

[interviewing] Good morning to both of you two gentlemen.

ROBERT PROCTOR, `Cancer Wars': Good morning.

Dr. RAYMOND LENHARD, American Cancer Society: Good morning.

BILL HEMMER: Mr. Proctor, let's start with you. You say the government is doing a bad job on research. Why?

ROBERT PROCTOR: Well, you'd think for $30 billion, we'd get a little bit more than what we've gotten. Cancer rates are still slowly on the rise and not enough has been done in really the crucial area that we need, which is prevention.

BILL HEMMER: Dr. Lenhard, you agree with that?

Dr. RAYMOND LENHARD: Well, I agree completely that we should be focusing on prevention at this time. The cancer rates are going up, death rates are going up because people are still getting cancer, and I think the American Cancer Society's focus is on cancer in 1995 and we're seeing some real progress.

BILL HEMMER: Dr. Lenhard, Mr. Proctor and others and have criticized your association because of what it considers a gravy train for research, having received some $30 billion over the past 24 years. Is that a fair characterization?

Dr. RAYMOND LENHARD: Not the gravy train, for sure. We spend about $800 million a year- I'm sorry, $80 million, not 800, wouldn't we like to? Eighty million dollars a year on research. We are changing some of our directions and we're focusing a lot of our attention on research in epidemiology, in the prevention areas, as well as, certainly, a heavy emphasis on basic research, which is really where all the cures are going to come from.

BILL HEMMER: Mr. Proctor, the government subsidizes many tobacco farmers. According to many surveys and research and numbers, cigarettes are thought to cause 30 percent of cancer cases. This being the case, should the government stop this funding? Why, or why not?

ROBERT PROCTOR: Well, of course we should. This has been the problem with the war on cancer all along, is that we've mainly been supporting basic biology research and while that's fine and good for biology, what we really need is an aggressive campaign against the causes of cancer, against things like tobacco, against things like asbestos. We need a stronger effort, for example, to give homeowners tax incentives to combat radon. Radon's a very preventable domestic cause of cancer that kills, the EPA says, as many as 20,000 or 30,000 Americans every year. What we need is some of these aggressive campaigns that are politically derived to combat the causes of cancer in the first place.

BILL HEMMER: Dr. Lenhard, do you face an issue, here, where you have to battle politics, especially with the tobacco industry?

Dr. RAYMOND LENHARD: Oh, absolutely. You see, there's a very important issue here. With good epidemiology and good basic research, we've identified a cancer-causing agent, and it's called tobacco. There are others, but if we look at the one that is most pervasive and causes the largest number of disease in this country, lung cancer is rising and it's rising because we have not been able to get this cancer-causing agent off the street. If it were almost anything else, people would be out in the street just rioting, trying to get the government and public sector and private sector to get some other cancer-causing agent off the street. And I agree, we should focus a lot of our attention on those things that cause cancer.

First things first, the American Cancer Society's focus on tobacco is very strong. We are advocates for removing this cancer-causing agent from our population, and we've done a pretty good job, by the way. If you look at how many people are smoking in this country compared to other places where the effort is nowhere near as strong, it's gone down dramatically, and I think we're, for the first time, seeing tobacco-caused cancers, particularly lung cancer, beginning to level off and beginning to start to slow down and actually decrease in their incidence and in their death rates.

BILL HEMMER: Mr. Proctor, what about that? Do you think the government's gone far enough or would you like to see more?

ROBERT PROCTOR: I don't think we've gone nearly far enough. The United States is, by far, the largest exporter of carcinogens in the world. We export three times as much as our nearest competitor of tobacco, alone. We're the world's, by far, leading exporter of tobacco. The World Bank and other international agencies don't do enough to stop the use of asbestos in construction materials. Here at home, our radon effort is very, very weak. It's a very preventable form of cancer. We don't do enough in the area of occupational health and safety. The Republicans are now about to try to axe the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. We need more research in this area, too, so I think there are lots of areas where we just haven't done our job in combating the carcinogens.

BILL HEMMER: Dr. Lenhard, you say the ball is rolling forward, and rolling toward what, I guess, is the obvious question here. What, right now, are the areas of concentration in cancer research?

Dr. RAYMOND LENHARD: Unquestionably, the biggest concentration still has to be, I think, on basic research. We have to understand this disease, and we're, really, for the first time beginning to get inside the cell and understand the genetic issues, understand the real causes of cancer, and from that will come our potential for making this disease go away, or not get it, which is even more important. So, I think we have to continue to support research at the basic level so we really understand what disease we're going after, and then, secondly, I couldn't agree more, we have to take those people who are exposing themselves to various cancer agents - radon was mentioned, but I think that- And I think that we should at least give it some consideration, but if you look at what the basic causes are, the most important thing is to go through the big ones first, and keep at those, and, again, tobacco, the use of tobacco particularly in smoking, particularly in children, is a very big issue. But, I think we're going to stay in this laboratory. We have to understand this disease if we're going to change it.

BILL HEMMER: Dr. Raymond Lenhard, we appreciate your time. Robert Proctor, thanks for you time, as well, gentlemen.




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