Kentucky is the cancer capital of the nation, and while cancer deaths have declined about 20 percent nationwide since 1980, they have increased in Whitley County and in most of the other 119 Kentucky counties.
Deaths due to cancer in Whitley County, at 238 deaths per 100,000 people, are 19 percent higher than the Kentucky average (200/100,000) and 43 percent higher than the national average (166.1/100,000).
Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky CEO Ben Chandler says Whitley County could reduce cancer mortality as well as other tobacco-related illness and death among area residents by decreasing the smoking rate.
Chandler was in Williamsburg Tuesday for a meeting with Judge-Executive Pat White Jr. and Health Department Director Martha Steele to discuss policy measures that are proven to reduce tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. He also spoke at the Knox County Chamber lunch meeting in Barbourville Tuesday.
“The most effective policy tools we have to reduce smoking and secondhand smoke exposure are smoke-free laws and raising the state cigarette tax,” said Chandler. “Whitley County’s adult smoking rate – at 35 percent – is double the national rate, and more than three times as many women in the county smoke while pregnant. Cut those rates and you’ll not only reduce cancer and other smoking-related disease, you’ll create a healthier workforce that can attract new business investment.”
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while cancer mortality dropped 20.1 percent nationwide from 1980 to 2014, there were “clusters of high mortality in several areas … with the highest rates of increase observed in Kentucky and scattered across regions of the South.”
In Whitley County, cancer mortality increased about 11 percent, according to the study.
In addition to cancers of the lung, head and neck, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum, smoking also causes heart disease and stroke, glaucoma, pre-term labor, birth defects and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke causes heart disease and stroke among people who have never smoked a cigarette.
Deaths due to heart disease in Whitley County, at 320 deaths per 100,000 people, are a startling 56 percent higher than the Kentucky average (202/100,000), and 92 percent higher than the national average (167/100,000).
About a third of Kentucky’s population is protected by smoke-free laws at the city or county level that cover all indoor public spaces and workplaces, according to the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy.
Just half of Kentucky’s school children are protected by tobacco-free campus policies. The smoking rate for 10th graders in the Cumberland River area is 15.6 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 13.1 percent and a national rate of 4.9 percent, according to a 2016 Kentucky Incentives for Prevention 2016 survey.
“Smoke-free laws don’t tell people ‘you can’t smoke’; they just make indoor air safer to breathe for everyone who works or visits in places like factories, clubs, restaurants, bars, and Bingo halls,” Chandler said, adding, “They also ‘de-normalize’ smoking and make the healthier choice the easier choice, providing an incentive to reduce the amount you smoke or to quit smoking altogether.”