Editorial: Quitting smoking still best preventative measure

More than 160,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer, making it the nation's leading cause of cancer death. Earlier this week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued a decision that certain current or former heavy smokers should start getting yearly scans to test for lung cancer to reduce their risk of death.

However, the best way to avoid lung cancer is still to quit smoking, or never start. Smoking is the biggest risk factor in getting lung cancer, and the likelihood of getting lung cancer increases the more and longer people smoke.

Because lung cancer is often diagnosed when it is too late for treatment because of a lack of early detection, the scans themselves are somewhat of a breakthrough. It's estimated that the new screening could prevent as many as 20,000 deaths a year. And under the Affordable Care Act, all cancer screenings backed by the task force should be covered with no co-pays, meaning these screenings could be widely available.

But the task force is concerned that the scans could do more harm than good if they are used incorrectly, which is why the government task force is only recommending the scans for people at the highest risk - those who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or the equivalent, and those between the ages of 55 and 80.

Young or light smokers could be drawn to getting the scans, but there is no data that shows the scans might be beneficial to them, because lung cancer is rare before age 50. If something is noticed on the scan, there's a chance it's more likely to be a false alarm than a tumor, but invasive testing would likely be necessary to determine that. It's also possible that radiation from the scans themselves could increase the risk of cancer.

That's why it's important for smokers not to view the scans as a potential cure-all.

Quitting smoking is a popular resolution at the beginning of the new year, but one that is incredibly hard to stick to. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help, including the Carroll County Health Department's smoking cessation program, which has a variety of classes to help you quit, walk-in clinic and free nicotine replacement products such as patches, gum, lozenges.

It's great news that medical advances could help save lives, but the best preventive medicine starts with individuals making healthier decisions.