Here's a seemingly counterintuitive statistic that surprised a lot of people last week: According to a new report by the American Cancer Society, residents of rural South Jersey are more likely to have cancer and die of cancer than residents of North Jersey.

"The Cancer Burden in New Jersey," the first American Cancer Society report to focus on New Jersey in detail, attributed that higher cancer rate in South Jersey to a higher rate of the deadliest cancer - lung cancer, 90 percent of which is caused by smoking.

And when you consider traditional income and educational levels in South Jersey, and the relationships between income and smoking, and education and smoking, there's nothing surprising at all about this report.

Five of the six counties with the highest smoking rates are in South Jersey, according to the study - with Cumberland County, where 25 percent of adults smoke, No. 1, and Salem County, where 24 percent of adults smoke, No. 2.

Cumberland, of course, also has long been the state's most economically depressed county. The South Jersey economy in general lags North Jersey. And according to the study, 26 percent of those earning less than $15,000 a year were smokers in 2010, while only approximately 11 percent of those making more than $50,000 were smokers.

Regarding education and smoking, the study found that 22 percent of New Jersey residents with just high-school degrees were smokers, while only 7 percent of college graduates were smokers.

So again, it's no surprise that South Jersey - where incomes and educational levels are lower than in North Jersey - has a higher lung-cancer rate.

The question is, what are local officials and Trenton - which traditionally short-changes South Jersey in so many categories - going to do about it?

Does South Jersey receive funding for anti-smoking and tobacco-control programs in proportion to the region's higher smoking rate? We suspect not.

Do South Jersey residents have the same access to preventive care and the drugs, gums and patches that can help wean smokers from their nicotine habits?

Obviously, more attention needs to be paid to South Jersey's smoking and lung-cancer rates.

But these grim statistics are really just one more reminder of why educational and economic opportunities must be improved for the people of South Jersey.

Address the educational and economic disparities between North Jersey and South Jersey, and the disparity in cancer rates will diminish.

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