Opinion

Can municipal government prevent cancer?

William Alatriste

Society has long grappled with government’s role in combating public health crises.

In the 20th century, government began legislating to influence personal health outcomes. Yet we have done a better job on some aspects of personal health than others. Taxes on cigarettes, prohibition of smoking in public spaces, and limits to the drinking age - all initially met with backlash - are now generally viewed positively as for the common good. I’m seeking to add another critical measure to that list in New York City: a ban on items that contain talc.

Talcum powder is a substance found in common consumer products, such as baby powder. Multiple scientific studies dating from the 1970s to the present have suggested that the use of talcum powder around the genitalia can cause ovarian cancer in women, with a disproportionate effect on women of color, who use baby powder at a higher rate. Johnson & Johnson was forced to pay $55 million and $72 million to two separate ovarian cancer victims and their families in 2016 alone. Low-cost, talc-free products are already available to consumers everywhere, including products made by Johnson and Johnson itself. So why continue to shelve talc-based products when we see the dangers?

In addition to potentially reducing the risks of ovarian cancer, this bill, if passed into law, would also send a decisive message to corporations that we will not tolerate the marketing and sale of potentially carcinogenic materials to women from the time of their infancy. This bill would bolster New York City’s reputation as a leader in public health policy. And most importantly, it would uphold our paramount commitment to protect young girls and women who face unique risks from these products.

I’m not one who believes government should interfere in all aspects of one’s personal decisions: There are plenty of choices that should be reserved for the individual to make. Nor am I of the mind that government should burden businesses, or over-regulate the market. But this debate begs the question: What is the purpose of government if we do not act to protect the public’s health and safety?

After all, it is the solemn duty of our government to promote general welfare. That includes protecting people from carcinogenic materials. We can start by banning a substance before it becomes as linked in conventional knowledge to ovarian cancer as cigarette smoking is to lung cancer. September was ovarian cancer awareness month. It was also the month my mother would have turned 64 had she not lost her battle to this silent, but deadly, disease.

Let us take decisive policy actions to remove the potential for talc to cause ovarian cancer in any other woman. Why not use the knowledge produced by science to prevent cancer?

Rafael Espinal is a New York City Councilman representing parts of Bushwick, Cypress Hills, City Line, East New York and Oceanhill-Brownsville in Brooklyn. He is also chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs.

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