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Offering low-dose CT scans to longtime smokers to screen them for lung cancer would reduce the death toll of the disease by an estimated 15,000 lives a year in the United States, a new study concludes.

Providing CT scans for these high-risk smokers would cost less than tests for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers, the researchers report in the journal Health Affairs. The study is likely to spark debate on expanding healthcare coverage for smokers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The study, conducted by a group of actuarial economists, determined that the yearly cost of providing low-dose CT scans for Americans ages 50 to 64 who have smoked about a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years would come to an additional 76 cents a month. That amount of money could give each person whose lung cancer was detected early an extra year of life, at a cost of $18,862.

Most insurance companies do not offer coverage for lung cancer screening for high-risk individuals, although these tests can pick up early stage tumors, the researchers note in a press release. “These results demonstrate the cost efficiency of offering this benefit to people who are at high risk of lung cancer,” said lead author Bruce Pyenson.

Last year, a study of more than 50,000 heavy smokers with no symptoms of lung cancer, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found deaths among those screened with low-dose CT scans were 20 percent lower than those screened with chest X-rays.

The American Cancer Society and most other medical groups do not recommend widespread CT screening for heavy smokers. They point to potential downsides of the test, including false positives that lead to additional testing, and premature deaths caused by procedures prompted by the screenings, such as needle biopsies of the lung.

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