Americans don’t agree on much of anything lately. Except taxes – who doesn’t hate taxes? And also cancer: everyone hates cancer.
Maybe hating cancer was on President Joe Biden’s mind when, earlier this month, 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’d 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 cigarette tax and sugary drink taxes. Think of a cancer tax like a carbon offset – corporations pay for the harm they inflict.
Proceeds would be used to fund prevention, the most neglected element of cancer initiatives. Treatment gets about 97% to 98% of all health-related spending in the United States, while prevention gets a piddly 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’s complimentary – a one-two punch. While the science behind cancer treatment is truly astonishing, it’s equally remarkable how little we understand about why cancer occurs. Risk factors like 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 in contact with every day, are clearly part of the equation. Most people aren’t even aware of these exposures, though many can and should be prevented – or at the very least reduced.
Expecting ordinary citizens to mitigate risk is backwards. It should be the responsibility of the companies polluting the environment to pay the price for the cancers they are creating.
Here’s how it could work: a cancer tax would apply to any company that externalizes carcinogens into the environment as well as those selling consumer products with undisclosed carcinogens. Often their cancer-causing actions are legal – just like selling cigarettes remains legal (and lethal). It’s mostly all out in the open.
There are too many companies to enumerate selling homewares, food, and beverages full of known carcinogens. Here are a few offenders who surely owe some cancer tax:
Industrial facilities, like those identified in a recent ProPublica report analyzing five years of data from the Environmental Protection Agency. They spew cancer-causing chemicals into the surrounding air, often permeating economically vulnerable communities where people of color disproportionately live. There are chemical and manufacturing plants spewing these pollutants right next to schools and daycares. Typically, facilities will claim it’s too expensive to remediate.
Agrochemical companies, including those responsible for the contamination of Nebraska’s surface and groundwater; a 2022 study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center shows high numbers of pediatric cancer cases associated with watersheds tainted by chemicals in fertilizer and weedkiller. 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 $4.69bn lawsuit against J&J (the award was later reduced to $2bn) for allegedly selling a baby powder containing cancer-causing asbestos for many years and covering it up. Classy.
Cancer tax them all!
Taxing those who create cancer is a modest idea that could do so much good. Sin taxes have proven track records. Cigarette taxes fund programs that prevent kids from starting smoking and help adults quit. Less smoking means less disease, just as less sugar means fewer health issues. Less carcinogens is just common sense. It makes no sense that a cancer tax doesn’t already exist. There are non-profits working tirelessly on cancer prevention, all typically underfunded. Imagine their impact if they could access some cancer tax dollars.
A cancer tax could potentially spur companies to avoid financial penalties, not to mention the consumer awareness and public shame that comes from having to pay-to-harm. They could instead 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. There have been incredible strides made in terms of survivorship, mainly due to improved treatments and earlier detection, but rates of new cancer – including a disturbing rise in pediatric cancer incidences – remain alarming. So, yes, we have and will continue to get better at treating cancer. Biden already has $1.8bn lined up for his cure-related Cancer Moonshot goals of scientific discovery and data sharing. But we also urgently need to get better at preventing cancer from happening in the first place.
Many moons ago, a first lady (hi, Tipper!) fought to get warning labels on music over a few filthy lyrics. Somehow decades of carcinogens in air, water, food, and even toothpaste have not managed to elicit similar ire or action. Maybe Jill Biden, who, with her husband, is mourning the son they lost to brain cancer, can take on a cancer tax-funded shift to prevention as her pet project. Fewer carcinogens will mean less cancer, which aligns perfectly with the Moonshot goals.
A cancer tax needs to be an essential part of ending cancer as we know it.
Jon Whelan is an entrepreneur and director of the environmental documentary Stink! Alexandra Zissu is a journalist, the author of six environmental health-related books, and a recent cancer mom. They’re both board members of Clean & Healthy New York