Lately, in the US we disagree on almost everything. Except taxes, who doesn’t hate taxes? And also cancer: everyone hates cancer. Perhaps hating cancer was on President Joe Biden’s mind when, in early June, he shared plans to reduce the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years, a lofty goal for his Cancer Moonshot program.
But back to taxes. To succeed, Biden needs a radical new approach. We would like to propose one: a cancer tax.The idea has solid precedent. There are already taxes on products known to create health problems, including a federal tax on cigarettes and taxes on sugary drinks. Think of a cancer tax as a carbon offset: corporations pay for the damage they cause.
Proceeds would be used to fund prevention, the most neglected element of cancer initiatives. Treatment accounts for 97% to 98% of all health-related spending in the United States, while prevention accounts for just 2% to 3%. But to end cancer as we know it, it is critical that we stop it before it needs a cure.
Prevention is not anti-cure
It is complementary: a double blow. While the science behind cancer treatment is truly amazing, just as remarkable is how little we know about why cancer occurs. Risk factors such as genetics, age, and lifestyle all play a role, but how they combine is often unclear. Environmental factors, including the massive increase in the number of cancer-causing chemicals we all come into contact with every day, are clearly part of the equation. Most people are not even aware of these exposures, although many can and should be prevented, or at least reduced.
Expecting ordinary citizens to mitigate risk is the other way around. It should be the responsibility of companies that pollute the environment to pay the price for the cancers they are creating.
How it works
Here’s how it might work: A cancer tax would apply to any business that sends carcinogens into the environment, as well as those that sell consumer products with undisclosed carcinogens. Their carcinogenic actions are often legal, just as selling cigarettes is still legal (and deadly). There are too many companies to list that sell household items, foods, and beverages filled with known carcinogens.
Here are some who surely owe some cancer tax:
Such as those identified in ProPublica’s report “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the US.” This report analyzes five years of data from the Environmental Protection Agency. It reveals where cancer-causing chemicals are, often making their way into economically vulnerable communities where a disproportionate number of Black people live. There are chemical and manufacturing plants that dump these pollutants right next to schools and day care centers. Typically, facilities will state that it is too costly to remedy.
Including those responsible for contaminating Nebraska’s surface and groundwater. A 2022 study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center shows a high number of pediatric cancer cases associated with watersheds contaminated by chemicals in fertilizers and herbicides. Nebraska’s pediatric cancer rate is the seventh highest in the country.
Personal care product companies
Like Johnson & Johnson. In 2018, 22 women with ovarian cancer won a $4.69 billion lawsuit against J&J (later reduced to $2 billion) for allegedly selling baby powder containing carcinogenic asbestos for many years and covering it up.
Cancer burdens them all
Taxing those who create cancer is a modest idea that could do a lot of good. Sin taxes have a proven track record. Cigarette taxes fund programs that keep children from starting to smoke and help adults quit smoking. Less tobacco means less disease, just as less sugar means fewer health problems. Fewer carcinogens is just common sense.
It doesn’t make sense that there isn’t already a tax on cancer. There are non-profit organizations that work tirelessly on cancer prevention, often with insufficient funds. Imagine their impact if they could access a few cancer tax dollars.
A cancer tax could encourage companies to avoid financial penalties, not to mention the consumer conscience and public embarrassment that comes from paying to harm. Instead, they could stop polluting and selling products with known carcinogens. Carcinogenic ingredients are cheap. That’s why corporations use them. A cancer tax would make them more expensive.
It has been 50 years since President Nixon declared his war on cancer. Incredible progress has been made in terms of survival, mainly due to improved treatments and earlier detection, but new cancer rates, including a worrying increase in the incidence of pediatric cancer, remain alarming. So yes, we have gotten better and will continue to get better at treating cancer. Biden already has $1.8 billion lined up for his goals related to the Cancer Moonshot program of scientific discovery and data sharing. But we also urgently need to get better at preventing cancer in the first place.
A while back, Second Lady Tipper Gore fought to put warning labels on music about some bawdy lyrics. Somehow, decades of carcinogens in the air, water, food, and even toothpaste have failed to provoke similar anger or action. Perhaps Jill Biden, who, with her husband, is mourning the son they lost to brain cancer, can take on a shift to tax-funded cancer prevention as her pet project. Fewer carcinogens will mean less cancer, which aligns perfectly with Moonshot’s goals.
A cancer tax must be an essential part of ending cancer as we know it.