Via a three-​​step chain that began with Pharyngula, I came across the news of a pos­si­ble lung can­cer vac­cine.

Researchers in America have dis­cov­ered that vac­ci­nat­ing mice with embry­onic stem cells pre­vented lung can­cer in those animals…

On the face of it this might seem like a good idea, and I sup­pose it is. I mean, lung can­cer is bru­tal. Any malig­nancy is pretty bad, of course; but we’re talk­ing about a vicious and per­ni­cious killer. But there’s an ele­phant hid­ing behind these mice — the fairly high pre­dictabil­ity of lung can­cer within a spe­cific pop­u­la­tion, which cor­re­lates very highly to a like­li­hood of pre­ventabil­ity in that same population.

I’m sure RJR will throw a lot of money into more exper­i­men­ta­tion here, if they’re not already. (The pri­mary researcher is work­ing at the U of Louisville, and I doubt the fund­ing is com­ing from the Big Chicken Industry.) After all, the pos­i­tive causal link between smok­ing and lung can­cer is con­tro­ver­sial only in the same way that evo­lu­tion vs. “Intelligent Design” is, which is to say: Not at all, except among the intensely stu­pid or reli­giously insane.

Thus, RJR et. al. know that the best way to improve the pub­lic per­sona of their prod­uct is to make it less lethal — or, bar­ring that, to present miraculous-​​seeming cures for the effects of their product.

Of course there are other causes for lung can­cer, such as expo­sure to asbestos, air pol­lu­tion or just plain crappy luck, so it’s impos­si­ble to argue that the vac­cine is a bad thing or even an unnec­es­sary one. However, I think it can be argued that the pro­ce­dure, once it’s been devel­oped out into a total suc­cess,* will be used pri­mar­ily to treat chronic smokers.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing.

However, we’ll then have to go on to address emphy­sema, asthma, oral can­cer, throat can­cer, nasal can­cer, coro­nary dis­ease and hyper­ten­sion, which are all as strongly asso­ci­ated with smok­ing as is lung cancer.

The point is that such a vac­cine will not make cig­a­rettes any safer or bet­ter for any­one to be exposed to, but with the psy­cho­log­i­cal 800-​​pound gorilla of the big C chained up, my bet is we’ll see at least some relax­ation in anti-​​smoking postures.

That’s unfor­tu­nate, since these other dis­eases are debil­i­tat­ing, some are fatal, and they’re all addi­tional results of cig­a­rette use.

A sim­pler, cheaper solu­tion would be total smok­ing ces­sa­tion, but that requires a vol­un­tary self-​​policing on the part of smok­ers. They have to be will­ing to quit, and they have to actu­ally do it, before the lung can­cer (and other asso­ci­ated dis­ease) rates really drop.

And how likely is that? Not very, I fear. After all, we live in a pill-​​popping world. Take a blue one to get a stiffy, a pink one to avoid preg­nancy, a white one to get to sleep, and a tan one for Junior when he gets a lit­tle too hyper. Heaven for­fend you should try some­thing like exer­cis­ing or improv­ing your diet — shitty health can always be med­icated away, right?**

This is not a healthy atti­tude; it is a pal­lia­tive, reac­tive approach to life, in a world that, against all evo­lu­tion­ary odds, devel­oped a species that is capa­ble of fore­sight as well as hindsight.

But until we’re socially evolved enough to praise the virtues of plan­ning ahead, our sin­gle clear advan­tage isn’t going to do us a damned bit of good.

What are some other places where we’d ben­e­fit from appli­ca­tion of fore­sight, rather than take a reac­tive stance? Anyone care to add to the list?


* The researcher is pes­simistic about the time­line, cit­ing likely FDA delays. I think he’s naively over­look­ing the power and wealth of the tobacco indus­try. If they want this stuff on the mar­ket next week, it will be on the mar­ket next week.

** Erectile dys­func­tion, insom­nia and hyper­ac­tiv­ity are all asso­ci­ated with poor nutri­tion and/​or poor exer­cise, though these aren’t the only pos­si­ble causes for such incon­ve­niences. And they aren’t seri­ous enough to be defen­si­bly called dis­eases, in most cases.


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