On Monday, 8 December 2003, Professor Mattei, French Minister of Health (1), visited the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer-research branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Lyon, France. The IARC, which was created through a French initiative in 1965, is best known for its databases on cancer incidence and trends worldwide, its research on the causes of cancer and the development of scientific strategies for early detection.
The Minister was presented with some of the most notable trends in the worldwide cancer patterns, for example the steady decline of stomach cancer in most countries, but the increase in incidence of breast cancer and tobacco-related cancer in women. The Agency's efforts in cancer prevention, early detection of cervical cancer and vaccination against cancer-causing viruses were presented.
Dr Paul Kleihues, Director of the Agency, pointed out that the panel of international experts participating at a meeting convened by IARC last June on tobacco had concluded that second-hand smoke is definitely carcinogenic (2). Furthermore, the panel had added a number of additional target sites for tobacco-associated cancers, including liver, uterine cervix and kidney, to the already long list of cancers caused by tobacco smoking.
Professor Mattei emphasized the fact that the most important avoidable cause of human cancer remains tobacco smoking. Some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and France have been able to reduce tobacco consumption, and this has already led to a significant reduction in mortality from tobacco-related cancers; it is hoped that other European countries will follow suit, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
Tobacco is estimated to kill 60,000 French people every year and, according to the IARC's World Cancer Report published earlier this year (3), a total of 4 million deaths are attributable to tobacco each year worldwide.
On occasion of his visit and in the framework of President Jacques Chirac's "Plan cancer", the Minister signed a convention with the Agency, donating one million euros to IARC's new programme on tobacco-related cancers. Dr Peter Boyle, IARC's Director-elect who will take office in January, 2004 (4), said that the grant from the Ministry of Health would help create a new research unit on tobacco that will focus on tobacco addiction and smoking cessation, the impact of tax policies on smoking prevalence, particularly among teenagers, the behavioural consequences and results of nicotine substitution treatment, and the systematic study of compensatory smoking.