What About a Cancer Tax?

We tax cigarettes and sugary drinks because they’re bad for you. We're starting to tax companies for their carbon emissions. Shouldn't we also tax companies that put carcinogens in the environment?


Bronze statue of Justice holding her scales

We 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 percent over the next 25 years – a lofty goal for his Cancer Moonshot program.


But back to taxes. To succeed, surely Biden needs a radical new approach, like a cancer tax.


The idea has solid precedent. There are already taxes on products known to create health problems, including cigarettes and sodas. Think of a cancer tax like a carbon offset – corporations pay for the harm they inflict.


Proceeds could be used to fund prevention, the most neglected element of cancer initiatives. Treatment gets about 97 percent of all health-related spending in the United States, while prevention gets a ridiculously paltry 3 percent. But to end cancer as we know it, wouldn't it be so much better to stop it before it needs a cure? Preventative initiatives are not a new idea and are deployed in numerous other areas of life - to great effect.


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. Environmental factors, including the massive increase in the number of cancer-causing chemicals we all come in contact with every day (along with genetics, age and lifestyle), are clearly part of the equation. Shouldn't it 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 put 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 legions of companies selling homewares, food, and beverages full of known carcinogens.


Taxing those who create cancer is a simple 'of the moment' 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. Wouldn't that be very good news for both them and us?


A cancer tax would also likely 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.


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.

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