Progress made, but W.Va. still lags on cancer policy

HUNTINGTON – West Virginia continues to fall short on implementing cancer-related statewide policies, according to an annual report released Thursday by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, though some tangible legislative process has been made in the past few years.

The report was particularly critical of widespread tobacco use in West Virginia, which has one of the highest rates of tobacco-related cancer and death in the nation. The network, which is the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society, continues to call for an increase to the state’s tobacco taxes and for restoring state-funded prevention and cessation programs.

More than 12,000 West Virginians are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to ACS CAN, and around 4,900 die annually. Of those, 32.6 percent are directly related to tobacco use, said Rosemary Thomas, ACS CAN state lead ambassador for West Virginia.

“Those are the type of statistics we have access to that the Legislature needs to pay attention to,” Thomas said.

“From our perspective, we feel (the state Legislature) can play a large role in this. (Tobacco) isn’t an illegal substance; however, it is killing our citizens.”

West Virginia is one of only two states, along with Connecticut, that does not allocate state funding for tobacco control programing.

The network’s report measures states based on policy actions state legislatures make to reduce cancer diagnoses and death: access to Medicaid, palliative care, preventing minors from using tanning beds, early detection programs for breast and cervical cancer, smoke-free laws, cancer pain control, tobacco taxes, tobacco control program funding, and tobacco cessation in Medicaid.

West Virginia is, however, meeting ACS CAN benchmarks in three of the nine issues by increasing access to Medicaid, prohibiting minors from using tanning beds and passing model legislation for palliative care – a patient-by-patient framework to treat the pain and stress caused by cancer alongside curing the disease.

“I think the real positive here is that while there is a problem, (the Legislature) is also acknowledging the role they can play in it,” Thomas said.

Thomas also praised Gov. Jim Justice’s social media promotion Tuesday encouraging tobacco users to call West Virginia’s 800-QUIT-NOW Quitline.

“That’s a step in the right direction, but what we need is the Legislature to acknowledge smoking is a huge problem in West Virginia,” Thomas said.

West Virginia did not expand statewide smoking bans this year, and 22 of West Virginia’s 55 counties still allow some degree of indoor smoking in restaurants and bars.

The Legislature also failed to recognize the ACS CAN’s call to increase cigarette taxes by at least $1.50 per pack. At $1.20 per pack, West Virginia’s current tobacco tax is 55 cents below the national average.

Neighboring Ohio and Kentucky also fell short on cancer-related policies in the study, though Ohio was commended for expanding Medicaid access – making the most forward progress among the three states. The study continued, however, that threats to reversing Medicaid access are still active in the Buckeye State.

In Kentucky, the study was critical of the state’s lack of effort in preventing cancer and providing better access to care.

The full nationwide report can be found online at

HD Media reporter Phil Kabler contributed to this report.

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