Stigma and Misinformation Maintain the Devastating Toll of Lung Cancer 

    August 1 is World Lung Cancer Day. Although this is the 12th iteration of an annual bid to spread awareness, lung cancer remains not only rampant, but plagued by stigma and misinformation. 

    When one out of every 16 Americans will receive a lung cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, the data show a staggering number of deaths that could have been prevented. Every day, approximately 382 people in the United States die from lung cancer—about the number that would fill a Boeing 777. 

    Annually, the US averages over 130,000 lung cancer deaths from smoking, plus over 7,000 more lung cancer deaths from secondhand smoke. Nearly 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking, and the disease accounts for a large portion of over 8 million smoking-related deaths worldwide each year.

    Another heartbreaking fact is that over 70 percent of lung cancer cases are only diagnosed at an advanced stage, when survival chances are low.

    Faced with this chronic crisis, we have an urgent need for high-quality research and honesty. We need to develop better screening and treatments to stop this disease being a death sentence for so many. We also need unbiased and widely publicized information on safer alternatives to smoking.

    Some patients are so ashamed because of the stigma that they beg their medical teams not to tell their families they have lung cancer.

    There are real barriers here. For a long time, people who smoke have been stigmatized, by society and by health care providers. That stigma carries over into lung cancer research and impacts lung cancer patients. 

    US federal funding for lung cancer research, per lung cancer death, is only 15 percent of the funding allocated to breast cancer, per breast cancer death. Yet more people die from lung cancer in the US than from breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.

    Meanwhile, a Global Lung Cancer Coalition survey found that 21 percent of participants admitted having less sympathy for people with lung cancer than those with other kinds of cancer. Hard-hitting anti-tobacco campaigns can contribute to the stigmatization of lung cancer patients, unfavorable mental health outcomes, and the avoidance of health care. 

    Some patients are so ashamed because of the stigma they’ve been subjected to that they beg their medical teams not to tell their families they have lung cancer.

    Eighty percent of US physicians wrongly believe that nicotine directly causes cancer.

    And when it comes to prevention, people who smoke, worldwide, are given deceptive misinformation from those who should be helping them stay healthy. Because doctors’ perceptions of safer nicotine alternatives are grossly distorted.

    One study found that 80 percent of US physicians wrongly believe that nicotine directly causes cancer. And a more recent survey of 15,000 physicians in 11 countries showed that this misconception is held by a similar percentage of doctors around the world.

    Even specialists are often spectacularly misinformed. For example, in a survey by the Korean Association for Lung Cancer of its membership (which includes medical and radiological oncologists, pulmonologists, and thoracic surgeons), over 75 percent believed nicotine vapes are not safer than combustible cigarettes. Most did not consider vaping to be a smoking cessation treatment, and 74 percent said they would not recommend it to someone who had been unable to quit smoking using traditional cessation methods.

    A number of cancer institutions are doing what they can to combat the lethal misinformation that millions of people who smoke have been hearing.

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer says that “e-cigarettes have the potential to reduce the enormous burden of disease and death caused by tobacco smoking if most smokers switch…” 

    The American Lung Association is still stuck on the antiquated myth that vaping causes “popcorn lung.”

    The Canadian Cancer Society is telling people, “if you are a smoker who has tried but not succeeded with other quitting methods, you would be better off from a health perspective to use e-cigarettes if it helps you stay off conventional cigarettes…”

    And the United Kingdom’s Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation has funded research to explore how vapes might help lung cancer patients stop smoking.  

    But as lung cancer continues to devastate families and communities, the American Lung Association is still stuck on the antiquated and debunked myth that vaping causes “popcorn lung.” 

    Material falsely making vaping-related cancer claims or purporting that vaping is as dangerous as smoking continues to be published and eventually retracted

    Studies exposing rodents to levels of vapor at concentrations humans would never use can lead researchers to conclude there is a cancer connection. Many studies about vapor products are littered with methodological flaws, the resulting inaccuracies fueling yet more misinformation. One factor that has sometimes caused misleading research is that most people who vape previously smoked, so often have a higher preexisting cancer risk. 

    People who smoke deserve access to products that are likely to give them a cancer-free life.

    People have been vaping nicotine for almost two decades. And as Cancer Research UK notes, while vaping is not entirely without any risk, “There is no good evidence that vaping causes cancer,” and “you will reduce your risk of getting cancer” if you switch. 

    Vaping has been shown over and over again to be far safer than smoking. For people who haven’t been able to quit cigarettes, that’s lifesaving information. When they switch from smoking to vaping, they drastically reduce their risk of cancer and other harms.

    Rather than just observe World Lung Cancer Day, we need to do much more to prevent this deadly disease. People who smoke deserve clear and accurate information about their options. They deserve access to products that are likely to give them a cancer-free life.



    Photograph by Donny Jiang via Unsplash

    • Skip started smoking when she was 10, and quit through vaping in 2015. She is an enthusiastic tobacco harm reduction advocate. She works as a direct service professional at a group home providing services for people living with disabilities. Skip also lives with a disability and was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and depression in 2020. She is the co-founder and a research volunteer for the Safer Nicotine Wiki. She previously owned a vape shop and served as the research fellow for the Consumer Center of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. She lives in Minnesota.

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