In February this year, the European Commission introduced ‘Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan’. It was presented as one of the main priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission, and one of the pillars of the European Health Union. The European Parliament created a special committee focused on this particular work. On the 9th of December 2021, this committee will vote on a report on the Commission’s strategy against cancer. This article will explain the contents of the Beating Cancer Plan.
The Beating Cancer Plan addresses the issue of cancer in a holistic way. It does not only include treatments but also covers prevention, quality of life and technological innovation. This holistic approach is influenced by lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic . COVID-19 showed us the importance of understanding the intricate links between different diseases, lifestyle factors and pre-existing conditions. Indeed, two-fifths of all cancer cases could be prevented when environmental, economic and social policies incorporate action on cancer-related health determinants.
The Beating Cancer Plan contains three broad pillars: prevention, the provision of care, and complementing Member States’ cancer-fighting policies.
In the field of prevention, the keywords are awareness, reduction and infections. The Commission will propose measures to increase public consciousness of cancer risks and causes, as well as measures that promote healthy diets and lifestyles. Measures will be introduced that aim to reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption, as well as measures that reduce air and environmental pollution, and exposure to dangerous chemicals and materials. Finally, the Commission will introduce measures aimed at reducing the prevalence of cancers caused by viral infections.
Regarding cancer care, the Commission has three priorities: ensuring earlier detection of cancer, improving the quality of life of those who are struck by cancer, and lessening the gaps in access to high-quality cancer treatments. The Commission intends to achieve the latter by upgrading quality standards, boosting the knowledge and skills of healthcare workers, and fostering the development of personalised medicine.
The final pillar of the Beating Cancer Plan concerns ‘complementing Member States’ policies’, by addressing funding-related issues and fostering good governance through cooperation within and outside the EU.
To propose a meaningful policy in the field of cancer, the EU had to use a creative approach. After all, according to the EU’s legal basis in the treaties, healthcare remains a largely national competence. The EU’s approach is based on treating the issue of cancer as a common European public health concern, and on maximising its ability to assist and coordinate the national cancer policies of Member States. To do so, the Beating Cancer Plan uses various economic, governmental, medical and technological interlinkages in an innovative way.
The Beating Cancer Plan contains many examples of such clever interlinkages. In the field of research and development, the Commission suggests the launch of the Knowledge Centre on Cancer, within the existing EU Joint Research Centre. This Knowledge Centre has recently launched a section devoted to aid the more than 16 000 under-18-year-olds who suffer from cancer every year. To create synergies in the field of digitalisation, cancer patients will be included in the European Health Data Space, and the European Cancer Information System will be expanded. The EU’s research coordination and funding programme, Horizon Europe, will create new partnerships in the field of cancer research to stimulate a better understanding and insights into possible treatments. But Horizon Europe will not only fund European research on cancer directly. Indirectly, for instance, through projects on chemical safety and air pollution, new insights will be generated as well.
This brings us to another interesting example of synergy achieved by the Beating Cancer Plan. The Commission intends to achieve an overall reduction in the prevalence of cancer in society by revising the EU Urban Mobility Package. Reducing inner-city pollution will have a preventative effect on cancer. Air pollution is not only a direct cause of lung cancer, but also affects our immune and cardiovascular systems. Taking this factor into account, air pollution indirectly contributes to roughly 400,000 cases of cancer in the EU each year.
Another interesting link is made with the revision of various EU laws on products with negative health consequences, such as tobacco, alcohol, and carcinogenic chemicals Initiatives like improved front-of-pack nutrition labelling, stricter occupational safety legislation, and healthy lifestyle campaigns are all expected to contribute to improving people’s overall health – thereby reducing people’s risks of developing cancer.
Finally, the Commission envisages a connection between vaccines and cancer prevention. Needless to say, COVID-19 showed the power of vaccines. Human papillomavirus and Hepatitis B/C are known to increase one’s risk of developing various cancers. Vaccines exist to prevent illness and hospitalisation. As a result, these vaccines also reduce the risk of cancer.
In the European Parliament, Rapporteur Véronique Trillet-Lenoir (France, Renew Europe) presented a draft report on the Beating Cancer Plan on the 15th of July 2021. The report gives a lot of attention to both prevention and treatments, and supports the idea of coordinating different policy areas in the fight against cancer. Important themes in the report are the affordability of drugs, the security of the pharmaceutical supply chain, and the degree of access to biosimilar and generic medicines. Increased joint procurement is envisaged as a solution to the issue of medicine affordability.
More than 1,500 amendments were submitted before the vote of 9 December 2021. Among other things, the amendments draw attention to the vulnerability of cancer patients during health crises; the amendments strengthen the language on tobacco, alcohol, chemicals, and food packaging; and the amendments promote health as an element of social justice and a factor in rural development. The development of personalised medicine is viewed favourably by the European Parliament. The Parliament also added several new initiatives to the report, for instance in the field of clinical nutrition, integrative medicine and childhood cancer.
In sum, the EU is taking a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to the issue of cancer. Over the coming years, the EU’s high level of ambition will be reflected in many upcoming laws – especially in domains that are not always directly linked with cancer. This approach promises many benefits to society at large. If proven successful, and with the consent of Member States, the EU may seek to expand its approach to other diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or Alzheimer’s. For businesses, this offers many opportunities, such as the creation of a more level playing field and raising the demand for innovative prevention and treatment tools. On the other hand, it may raise costs and reduce demand in certain industries. Therefore, one might consider to look out for the eventuality that the EU might take a bigger role in health-related matters – and one might wish to prepare themselves to influence the EU institutions.
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