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Along the cancer corridor

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http://www2.townonline.com/wilmington/l ... eid=384548

By Melissa Russell/ Correspondent

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Want to quit smoking?

You’re on your own.

Although Tewksbury and Wilmington place in the top 15 towns in the state in terms of lung cancer deaths, funds for smoking cessation programs have long since dried up, leaving would-be quitters to fend for themselves.

Tobacco Free Mass, a privately-funded coalition against smoking, last month released a report that names Tewksbury, Wilmington, Billerica, and Lowell in the top tier of deaths from lung cancer, out of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

According the group, 3,800 Massachusetts are expected to die from lung cancer and other related cancers this year. Smoking is the overwhelming cause of lung cancer, responsible for 87 percent of lung cancer cases.

And it is a killer: Sixty percent of lung cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis; 85 percent die within five years.

In these four municipalities, the numbers of actual cases as opposed to what each community would have expected to see are striking. (See chart, Page 4)

Local Board of Health directors are in agreement that high rates of smoking in these towns are behind the numbers, and that environmental factors would have little or no statistical impact.

"Direct exposure to smoking means an incredible amount of pollution going directly into the lungs," says Greg Erickson, director of the Wilmington Board of Health.

"Environmental sources are miniscule in comparison."

"While there could be some environmental factors, such as working in shipyards 25 or 30 years ago [with exposure to asbestos], these communities have a history of high smoking rates," said Frank Singleton, director of Lowell’s Board of Health.

In Lowell, lung cancer death rates were significantly higher than statistically expected between 1998 and 2003, Singleton said.

"Statistically, we expected 159 deaths, and got 250 instead," he said.

Tewksbury’s Board of Health Director Tom Carbone says his department has known for a while about the high incidence of lung cancer. He points to Whipple Road, where Billerica, Tewksbury, and Lowell come together as a "cancer track."

"The prime reason is tobacco use," he says, describing the area as "an older part of town with starter homes, a blue-collar area."

"Demographic-wise, these are people who use tobacco," he said.

Singleton adds that Lowell’s high numbers may be due to immigrants; particularly from Southeast Asia, who tend to smoke more than the rest of the general public.

Erickson said he was not surprised to hear of the high death rate from lung cancer.

"We knew there was a high incidence of the disease," he says.

But despite the elevated level of lung cancer and its deadly consequences, the state has gutted funding of programs that could help ease people off smoking.

According to Tobacco Free Mass, a 95 percent cut to state funding for the Massachusetts Control Program since 2000 means that smokers who want to quit don’t find the smoking cessation services they need.

"As a result of the program cuts there are no state-funded cessation services to help smokers quit, and the smoking rates continue to be exceptionally high among low socio-economic status populations across the Commonwealth," said Diane Pickles, executive director of Tobacco Free Mass.

Billions paid to state

According to the organization’s Web site, billions of dollars were to be paid out to the states over 25 years as part of a 1998 agreement with cigarette manufacturers. In Massachusetts, the state’s share of the settlement fund payments, combined with the tobacco excise tax, totals more than $700 million each year.

In the past these funds paid for anti-smoking media campaigns, education, outreach, compliance checks, and cessation programs, all of which were shown to reduce the number of smokers statewide.

Funds to those programs were cut 95 percent three years ago, as the state sought to close budget gaps and cover escalating health care costs. Tobacco Free Mass states that cigarette manufacturers sent Massachusetts $1.5 billion in the past five years, but the fund has only $500 million, because funds were diverted to other purposes.

Locally, this translates to once-successful programs disappearing due to lack of funding.

In Tewksbury, a program targeting the increase of tobacco use saw its funding pulled before implementation.

"We still hope to do direct mailings and education work on youth prevention and to help adults kick the habit this winter," Carbone said.

No program funding

In Billerica, Board of Health acting director Richard Berube says that while the town still checks tobacco sales to minors, there is no public tobacco education.

"Efforts to education and cessation programs are out the window," he said. "It’s unfortunate. The programs had an effect and were successful."

"It’s typical of the state to hand out mandates with a little funding, then yank the money and leave towns holding the bag," he added. "We have limited resources and limited staff and our hands are quite full."

Although retail compliance checks are still carried out in Lowell, Singleton says the budget was cut to $45,000, down from $150,000 three years ago, and that three person staff was whittled down to one part-time person. No cessation programs are offered by the city, or by local hospitals, he said.

"The Lowell Community Health Center had a program, but that’s gone. When the money was taken away it destroyed the whole program," he said. "We were making an impact, but now (smoking levels) are creeping up."

Russet Breslau, spokesperson for Tobacco Free Mass says that since cuts to education programs and cessation services, there has been an uptick in lung cancer rates in the state.

"In 1993, when the tobacco control program was formed, deaths decreased faster than the national rate," she said.

But with the improving fiscal picture in the state, legislators are once again seeking more money for smoking programs. A bill that would restore funding is currently working its way through the State Legislature.

"The sad fact is that every state took money from prevention programs to settle the tab during the recent fiscal crisis,’ said state Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover.

Tucker noted that attitudes are beginning to change as the House and Senate will be restoring at least a portion of the money set aside for cessation programs.

"So the good news is that we are rebuilding the finding," said Tucker, who is a co-sponsor of one of the bills

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