Georgia earned high marks in just two of nine categories related to fighting cancer, according to a recent report.
The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network says in its report that only six states had fewer top ratings, labeled as “Green” in the organization’s color-coded grading system.
The state scored Green on access to palliative care and on funding for early detection of breast and cervical cancer. Medicaid coverage of tobacco cessation services received a “Yellow,’’ signifying moderate progress.
Georgia’s biggest anti-cancer opportunity would come through increasing the tax on cigarettes, the Action Network said. The state received a “Red’’ rating for not increasing the levy.
(For the ratings, Green shows that a state has adopted evidence-based policies and best practices; Yellow indicates moderate movement toward the benchmark and Red shows where states are falling short. On categories relating to funding, a Black designation is assigned to states that provide no funding.)
The Cancer Society said that 56,920 Georgians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year and 17,730 are projected to die from it. The nine categories that were rated by the report represent policies that fight tobacco use, promote healthy behavior and improve access to health screenings and treatment.
The cigarette tax has been a focus for health advocates in Georgia for many years. Georgia’s current excise tax of 37 cents has not been increased since 2003 and only two states, Missouri and Virginia, have a lower tax. The national average as of July 1, 2018 is $1.75 per pack.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, introduced a bill in this year’s General Assembly session to raise the tobacco tax by $1.50 per pack. It did not gain consideration.
The Cancer Action Network said the legislation was projected to reduce the youth smoking rate by 16.2 percent, prevent 29,200 premature deaths due to smoking and save the state about $2.1 billion in long-term health care costs. The tax increase also would have generated about $460 million in new revenue for the state.
“It would decrease the number of kids who start smoking,” said Andy Freeman, government relations director for the Action Network in Georgia.
“I anticipate it will be reintroduced next year,’’ Freeman said. “There were more folks willing to give it a look,’’ but he added that a tax increase of any kind “is not exactly popular in an election year.’’
Three in four Georgians surveyed on the tobacco tax issue said they supported raising the levy by $1 per pack, in a poll commissioned by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
The Network also graded Georgia as a “Red’’ for not expanding its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. More coverage means more access to treatment and other medical services, the organization noted. Georgia’s political leaders have rejected the idea of expansion, saying it’s too costly for the state.
Georgia’s funding of tobacco prevention and cessation programs earned a “Black’’ rating. That rating stems from the fact that the state appropriates less than 1 percent of the funding levels that the CDC recommends for those programs, Freeman said.
Martha Tingen, director of the Tobacco Control Initiative at the Georgia Cancer Center, said after reviewing the report that Georgia received worse grades than it deserved.
She noted that the state offers a “Quit Line’’ for smokers wanting to break the habit. And while the Cancer Action Network report focused on statewide smoke-free laws, Tingen, who is Charles W. Linder Endowed Chair in Pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, said that cities such as Augusta and Savannah have adopted strong smoke-free laws.
Still, Tingen said, the state needs to increase funding for tobacco prevention and cessation, for efforts to decrease secondhand smoke, and to address health disparities related to tobacco use.
Although African Americans usually smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking cigarettes at an older age, they are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than whites, the CDC says. African-American children and adults also are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than any other racial or ethnic group.
Georgia received $376 million from the federal tobacco settlement, and less than 2 percent of that went to tobacco prevention, Tingen said. She praised the Cancer Society for identifying needed ways to combat cancer more effectively.
School curricula offer very little education on preventing drug and tobacco use, she said. And she noted an increase in high school students using e-cigarettes.
“Ninety percent of all tobacco users began before they exited high school,’’ Tingen said.
A higher cigarette tax would prevent many from starting to use tobacco products, she added.