Investing in Our Cancer-Related Health: How Raising the Cigarette Tax Would Help Our Community

May 20, 2024

By Naoto T. Ueno, Director of the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center

This editorial article was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on May 19, 2024.

There scarcely has been a more critical time to invest in Hawaiʻi’s cancer-related health. Cancer diagnoses in America this year are expected to surpass 2 million for the first time in history, and more than 35 million new cancer cases worldwide are predicted in 2050 — a 77% increase from the estimated 20 million cases in 2022. In Hawaiʻi, each year an average of 7,393 local residents are diagnosed with invasive cancer, leading to 2,393 deaths. Such grim projections from the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, and our state point to the importance of state House Bill 2504, which proposed raising Hawaiʻi’s cigarette tax by 2 cents per cigarette. Although this measure championed by physician Gov. Josh Green and supported by the state House and the University of Hawai‘i ultimately failed in the 2024 Hawaiʻi Legislature, its purpose remains crucial for the future of cancer education, research, and patient care in Hawaiʻi.

Naoto T. Ueno
Naoto T. Ueno

Support for groundbreaking cancer research and patient care

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific, the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center plays a critical role in groundbreaking research, patient care, and clinical trials of new cancer treatments. Funding from the cigarette tax has long supported programs that seek to understand the causes of cancer, develop prevention strategies and care for cancer patients, and educate the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians, as well as to build the UH Cancer Center’s top-notch facility.

The irony here is that smoking cessation efforts driven by cancer research and community engagement have reduced cigarette use by more than half, in turn reducing state funding of the UH Cancer Center tied to the cigarette tax. This decrease limits our ability to maintain the center’s original mission to lessen the burden of cancer in Hawaiʻi. HB2504 would have allowed us to restore our original funding level from 10 years ago.

Hawaiʻi’s diverse communities to benefit

Restoration of the tax revenue would enhance our ability to attract and retain world-class scientists and clinicians. The restored funding could support evidence-based programs tailored for Hawaiʻi's diverse communities, including Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, underserved Asian Americans, and low-income populations. Understanding and reducing tobacco use behaviors among these groups, along with researching e-cigarette use among adolescents and young adults, are critical steps in mitigating cancer risk.

Further, full funding would also attract federal grants and collaboration, further positioning Hawaiʻi as a leader in cancer research. It would bring additional renowned researchers and clinicians to Hawaiʻi, address the shortage of specialized oncology practices, and facilitate clinical trials for patients throughout the Pacific region. Additional tax funding would enable the UH Cancer Center to continue to expand innovative cancer treatment and prevention strategies tailored to Hawaiʻi's unique demographics, and bring more and earlier-phase clinical trials to our Islands.

Investing in cancer research and patient care is not only a medical necessity but a moral imperative. Nearly 40% of our adult population will experience cancer in their lifetimes. By supporting initiatives like HB2504, we can ensure that comprehensive care is accessible right here in Hawaiʻi nei, eliminating the need for patients to leave the Islands and leave their homes and loved ones behind in search of cutting-edge cancer treatments.

As director of the UH Cancer Center, I am committed to advocating for transformative research and delivering world-class education, prevention, diagnosis and treatment to our community. The future of cancer-related healthcare in Hawaiʻi hinges on the decisions made by our community and legislators. We must prioritizing funding to safeguard the health and well-being of future generations.

Naoto T. Ueno, MD, PhD, FACP, is the Director of the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center, a Professor of Medicine at the center, and a two-time cancer survivor.