Long delayed due to the pandemic, the European Commission released the final text of Europe’s Beating Cancer plan on Wednesday, one day before World Cancer Day.
Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas touted the Commission’s plan as setting “ambitious” goals and deadlines in his presentation, as well as activating €4 billion worth of funding with its budget.
The plan has been a priority of the center-right European People’s Party, which not only campaigned for it but deployed two of its own — Schinas and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides — to promote it at its launch. A two-hour event on Wednesday followed the unveiling, with an introduction from EPP Chair Manfred Weber and appearances by three Commissioners plus a representative from the World Health Organization and the drugmaker CureVac. Capping it off was former footballer and cancer survivor Eric Abidal.
The plan itself isn’t a legislative proposal, but it does set intersect with a number of existing and proposed initiatives, from the Farm to Fork Strategy to the European Health Data Space to the upcoming review of the Tobacco Products Directive.
The final aim? In the words of the plan: To “support, coordinate and complement Member States’ efforts to reduce the suffering caused by cancer.”
The hope is that decisive action at the EU level — the first of its kind since the early 1990s — can help head off a projected 24 percent increase in cancer deaths by 2035. Such a hike would make the disease the leading killer in the EU.
Old and new
The broad strokes of the document are in line with a previous draft dating back to December. Its ambitious smoking-cessation target — pushing EU smoking rates down to 5 percent by 2040 from 25 percent today — was confirmed. Measures to include mandatory indications of ingredients for alcohol by 2022 and health warnings before the end of 2023 were also put forward, although language around curtailing the promotion of red meat was weakened.
The published plan, like the draft, includes a proposal to eliminate cancers caused by human papillomaviruses, like certain cervical cancers, through large-scale vaccination campaigns.
Other initiatives include the creation of an EU network of national cancer centers in every member country by 2025, with the goal of ensuring that 90 percent of eligible patients have access to one by 2030. The centers are meant to “facilitate the uptake of quality-assured diagnosis and treatment, including training, research and clinical trials across the EU.”
Another flagship proposal is to ensure that breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening is offered to 90 percent of those eligible by 2025.
Among the changes since the plan’s December draft is a delay by one year for a proposal to create an EU “atlas” of cancer-related images to train AI-powered diagnostic tools. This is slated to go ahead in 2022 rather than 2021. Gone from the final draft is a proposal to create an occupational cancer register.
The importance of personalized medicine has been upgraded in the final text, with nearly two pages dedicated to the topic. The plan proposes a program in 2023, funded through Horizon Europe, to identify “priorities for research and education in personalized medicine.”
The Commission will create a roadmap for personalized prevention that will help with “identifying gaps in research and innovation, and will support an approach to map all known biological anomalies leading to cancer susceptibility, including hereditary cancers ”
Meanwhile, the December draft proposed to “revise the regulatory framework on ultraviolet radiation including from sunbeds.” This language has been softened to “the Commission will also explore measures on exposure to ultraviolet radiation, including from sunbeds.”
An initiative proposing a “EU Digital Passport for Cancer Prevention” in the December draft is now an “EU Mobile App for Cancer Prevention.”
The Cancer plan doesn’t mention (except in a footnote) the “right to be forgotten,” an anti-discrimination proposal to enshrine the right for cancer patients to not have their medical history recorded by banks and insurance companies. France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the the Netherlands have all passed legislation to that effect.
However, it does promise to “closely examine practices in the area of financial services (including insurance) from the point of view of fairness towards cancer survivors in long term remission,” with a view to create a code of conduct to make sure “only necessary and
proportionate information” is used when assessing access to financial products.
Health experts weigh in
Both EU politicians and non-governmental organizations hailed the plan as an important step forward.
The plan shows that it’s in the EU’s power to beat cancer, said Bartosz Arłukowicz, Polish MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s cancer committee.
“Shared knowledge and databases, support for screening programs [and] co-financing HPV vaccinations are among the many steps we will not hesitate to take on our path to finally beating cancer,” he said.
Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, MEP for Renew Europe and rapporteur for the cancer committee, praised the plan for earmarking “concrete and ambitious actions in health, research but also in environment, agriculture and mobility domains.”
The EU could go even further, she said, by implementing a “right to be forgotten,” as well as ensuring fair access to loans and insurance.
Patient groups and cancer societies also weighed in. Matti Aapro, President of the European Cancer Organisation, called the policy document “inspiring,” while Wendy Yared, director of the Association of European Cancer Leagues, said it’s a “crucial milestone” and “key to building a strong European Health Union.”
The Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, meanwhile, applauded the plan’s links to the European Health Data Space. That proposal could facilitate the assessment for cutting-edge cancer therapies, for example, by gathering real world evidence and data, according to the group, which represents cell and gene therapy companies.
More critical tones came from the vaping lobby, which has been eyeing a possible EU crackdown on e-cigarettes. The plan mentions “extending taxation to novel tobacco products” as well as updating Council recommendations on smoke-free environments to extend to e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
Michael Landl, director of the World Vapers’ Alliance, said that the plan “is allowing ideology to get in the way of science” by “[equating] vaping to smoking in parts of the plan.”
“It ignores the wealth of evidence showing that vaping represents only less than half of one percent of the cancer risk that smoking does,” said Landl.
Alcohol lobby spiritsEUROPE was more positive, as the plan’s release revealed that several alcohol-related provisions had fallen away since the earlier draft.
The final version dropped the draft’s proposal to include calorie content information on labels and commit the Commission to “stop stimulating consumption of alcohol via the EU promotion program for agricultural products.” Also struck was language calling for the Commission to “closely work with member states to reduce online marketing and advertising” as a way of reducing young people’s exposure to alcohol promotion.
“The best evidence shows that light to moderate consumption can be part of a balanced lifestyle,” the industry group said.