Maryland's three prolific killers

June 29, 1992

Maryland owns the gloomy distinction of leading the nation in cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 10,000 state residents will die from the illness this year. That's roughly one out of every 500 Marylanders. No wonder state officials have launched a campaign to prevent the disease -- its centerpiece being the new 20-cents-a-pack increase in Maryland's cigarette tax.

Of course, the fight against cancer should be no less than an all-out effort. However, a new study by a local research team suggests that the state, in its vigor to stem the number of deaths from cancer, may be overlooking an even more prolific killer.

Dr. Stephen Havas and other researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have reported that almost 13,000 Marylanders die from heart disease every year -- about 3,000 more than the number who perish from cancer. The study also found that another 2,400 state residents annually die of stroke. The scientists concluded that Maryland's death rates for cancer, heart disease and stroke are well above the national averages.

In dollars as well as in lives, the three diseases take a heavy toll. The UM report determined that their treatment cost $1.4 billion in 1988, or about 16 percent of all health care dollars spent in Maryland four years ago. Tack on another $3 billion in wages and productivity lost that year.

As Dr. Havas notes, combating cancer through the promotion of healthful living will help prevent all kinds of illness, including heart disease and stroke. Yet the state could do more than focus on anti-smoking efforts. Maryland currently spends far more on cancer education than on information campaigns about heart disease and stroke. With heart disease reportedly killing more people than cancer, the state might do well to strike a better balance in how it attacks these lethal maladies.

Getting people to quit smoking is a good start in fighting both cancer and heart trouble. But state officials should also put a strong emphasis on publicizing and preventing other causes of heart disease, such as excess weight, stress, high levels of cholesterol and physical inactivity. Only then might Maryland begin to shed the reputation of being an all-too-cordial host to the three prolific killers known as cancer, heart disease and stroke.

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