Researchers continue to uncover how health behaviors– like diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and tobacco use– can be risk factors for certain cancers. In fact, one recent study estimates nearly half of all cancer deaths are associated with these potentially modifiable risk factors. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends a healthy eating pattern, regular physical activity, and limited alcohol and tobacco use as important strategies for cancer prevention. Significantly, ACS also recognizes the importance of community action in making these health behaviors feasible for all. This community action includes increasing access to affordable, healthy food, providing safe and accessible opportunities for physical activity, and limiting access to tobacco and alcohol. 

Unfortunately, access can differ drastically depending on where someone lives. Because of this, the health behaviors that reduce cancer risk are much harder to implement for some than others. In many cases, rural communities and neighborhoods with low-income individuals or racial and ethnic minorities face added barriers to health. For example, rural residents often live miles from the nearest source of fresh, healthy food. This lack of access is one of several reasons why rural households face food insecurity at a higher rate than urban households. According to Feeding America, 9 out of 10 high food insecure counties are rural, and 8 out of 10 counties are located in the South. In comparison to neighborhoods with higher household income residents, neighborhoods with lower income residents feature fewer sports areas, parks, greenways, well-maintained sidewalks or bike paths. Rural communities lack the availability of public transit or close proximity of residential areas to everyday destinations, such as retail stores and schools, that help promote more daily physical activity in urban areas. The places people live can also impact their tobacco and alcohol use. Research shows that neighborhoods featuring an overabundance of convenience or liquor stores, and thus more advertising for alcohol and tobacco products, contribute to disparities in use rates. These retailers tend to cluster in neighborhoods with a high percentage of low-income residents or residents of color.  

While there is no one-size-fits all solution, there are a number of ways state and local governments, along with community partners, can work to reduce these disparities so everyone has the opportunity to be healthy, regardless of where they live. A few examples include: 

  1. Providing support and resources for existing food retailers by assisting with food distribution challenges and establishing healthy retail programs 
  2. Developing affordable and efficient transportation services for neighborhoods without convenient access to healthy food retail venues and adopting Complete Street policies to ensure streets are designed to be safely used by all
  3. Supporting shared use agreements so that existing facilities, such as schools, can be used for physical activity by the broader community 
  4. Decreasing the density of alcohol and tobacco outlets through licensing or zoning restrictions

By building healthier communities for all, we have the potential to make a profound impact on the health behaviors that are proven to reduce cancer risks.