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Kentucky has worst rates of smoking and tobacco-related cancer

Kentucky's love affair with cigarettes has some unwanted progeny: high rates of cancers that are caused by tobacco.

A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examines the relationship between smoking and tobacco-related cancers. Kentucky ranks high on both lists.

The state has the highest rate of smoking in the nation and the highest rate of lung cancer, for both men and women, the highest rate of cancer of the larynx or vocal cords for women and the third highest rate of cancer of the larynx for men.

The report found that states with high rates of smoking also have high rates of tobacco-related cancers.

"If we were able to effectively prevent tobacco use and make it a rare ... within a generation we'd start seeing a large reduction in cancer rates," said Terry Pechacek, associate director for science in the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health and one of the report's authors.

In the South, where smoking rates are higher, tobacco-related cancer rates are higher as well, the study found. In the West, which has some of the lowest smoking rates in the nation, tobacco-related cancer rates are lower.

The report analyzed 2.4 million cases of tobacco-related cancers occurring between 1999 and 2004 and smoking rates in the 50 states.

The tobacco-related cancers are ones that the U.S. Surgeon General has found are caused by tobacco use. They are: lung, larynx or laryngeal, mouth, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, kidney, bladder, cervical and acute myelogenous leukemia. Not all cases of these cancers are caused by tobacco use.

Kentucky had high rates of five of the cancers: lung, larynx, kidney, esophageal and cervical.

Without tobacco use, some of these cancers would be rare, Pechacek said.

Kentucky's challenge is its historically high rates of smoking, said Tom Tucker, a professor of epidemiology at University of Kentucky School of Public Health.

"Tobacco-related illnesses are things that are preventable," Tucker said.

According to the CDC, Kentucky's smoking rates have decreased a few percentage points in last decade. In 1996, the state had a smoking rate of 31.6 percent. In 2006, it was 28.6 percent.

But they are decreasing, said Dr. William Hacker, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

Youth rates, in particular, have decreased to 35 percent, from 42 percent, since Kentucky increased its cigarette tax to 30 cents a pack, he said.

"Kentucky is headed in the right direction, it's just that we started so far behind," Hacker said.

Mike Kuntz, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association, says that lawmakers need to do more if Kentucky wants to make real progress.

States that have reduced smoking rates have either passed smoke-free laws or have significantly increased cigarette taxes, Kuntz said.

Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, supported a cigarette tax during the most recent legislative session. But the measure, a version of which was approved by the Democratically controlled House, was not considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Since then, Beshear has continued to call for an increase in the cigarette tax.