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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press On Cancer Policy, the Washington Post Rates Ignorance Over Facts

On Cancer Policy, the Washington Post Rates Ignorance Over Facts

Sunday, 13 February 2011 08:49

The Washington Post's Outlook section told readers today that, "On cancer, the EPA rates fears over facts" [the headline is slightly different in the online version]. The point of the piece is that people are 10 percent more likely to die from heart disease than cancer, yet they fear cancer more. As a result of this seemingly irrational fear, the EPA is placing a greater emphasis on combating cancer, the less dangerous killer, than heart disease.

Let's trot over to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to see what they say about this issue. They confirm the basic story, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. But we find something very interesting when we look at the causes of death by age.

For men, cancer is a more frequent cause of death up to age 25, heart disease is somewhat more frequent cause of death for men between the ages of 25-54. Cancer is then the leading cause of death for men between the ages of 55-74, with heart disease then becoming the most important cause of death for the oldest men.

For women, the age issue is more unambiguous. Up to age 65, cancer is by far the more frequent cause of death, killing more than twice as many women as heart disease. Heart disease only passes cancer as a cause of death among women once they reach the age of 75.

So, it doesn't look like the EPA has to rate fear over facts in order to focus more of its attention on cancer than heart disease, it just has to look at the data.

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by skeptonomist, February 13, 2011 9:28
The critical issue is not which causes more deaths, it is what the EPA can do. It does have some control over environmental pollutants which may cause cancer, and research on these things is important if its policy is to be rational. I don't have any data, but I assume that environmental factors (leaving aside tobacco smoke, which is not under the control of the EPA) are less important for heart disease.
Fear can be rational
written by Jim D, February 13, 2011 11:18
Its entirely rational to fear cancer more than heart attacks. I've known a number of people who've died of both - heart attack victims are gone in a day, cancer victims linger for months in incredible pain. Which would *you* rather avoid?
written by AndrewDover, February 13, 2011 11:37
Yes, statistically, you could probably save more lives with anti-cigarette advertising, automobile safety, and promoting physical activity, than you can be trying to prevent terrorist attacks with armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But where does the money go?
written by jcl, February 13, 2011 11:47
Thank you, Dean -- the idea that people are too stupid to assess risk rationally is currently very fashionable, but it is often simply untrue. Also to take into account: which of these diseases is more likely to strike without any warnings or known risk factors?
Cancer is much "Sexier" Politically
written by Paul, February 13, 2011 12:23
With the EPA's budget under seige by the GOP, cancer prevention is politically more important. Just follow the money.
written by Gar Lipow, February 13, 2011 2:44
I want to 2nd Skeptomist's comments. Factors that the EPA has authority to regulate contribute much more to cancer than heart disease. EPA does not focus on heart disease for the same reason they don't focus on gunshot wounds. Most of the causes are not under their jurisdiction.
Cancer is scarier
written by McMike, February 14, 2011 12:52
In addition to the way you die, consider perhaps that it is also generally perceived that heart disease is "internal" to a person, and "earned" via lifestyle choices, and reversible through changes in lifestyle.

Cancer is viewed more as invading outsider, that attacks much more indiscriminately.
Retired Senior
written by Rita Eason, February 14, 2011 8:13
Premature deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease increase from micro particulates released

from coal burning plants,diesel engines, and auto tailpipes. Anything that is a threat to human health.
The EPA has authority to set limits on amounts of toxics released into the air, water, and land.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.