Why insurance companies are feeling the pinch with rising cancer cases in India

Insurance companies are feeling the pinch amidst an increase in lung and oral cancers cases across the country. Over the past five years, the claim share for these types of cancers has surged nearly fivefold, posing financial challenges for insurers. Data from insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar showed a marked increase in insurance claims for lung and oral cancers between 2020 and 2024.

In 2020, these cancers represented 1.15% of total claims, creeping up to 1.20% in 2021. The upward trend became more pronounced in 2022, with claims rising to 3.70%, followed by 4.89% in 2023, and peaking at 5.70% in 2024. This near-fivefold jump highlights a growing cancer incidence and mounting financial strain on insurers.
Siddharth Singhal, Head of Health Insurance at PolicyBazaar, attributes the rising prevalence of these cancers to pollution and poor lifestyle choices. “India reported over 1.46 million cancer cases in 2022, with a large chunk being lung and oral cancers. This trend is reflected in the share of claims, which has escalated from 1.15% in 2020 to 5.7% in 2024,” he noted.
“In response to the growing burden, insurers are rolling out wellness benefits and discounts to promote healthier lifestyles. Initiatives, like offering a 100% renewal discount for individuals meeting daily exercise targets, are proving crucial in fostering a health-conscious populace,” said Singhal.
ICICI Lombard Health Insurance data shows a similar trend in the last couple of years. Claims for lung cancer spiked from 696 in FY22 to 1,189 in FY24, marking a 70.8% increase. The volume of paid claims also rose by 75.2% over this period. Meanwhile, oral cancer claims surged more dramatically, with a 136.5% increase in intimation from FY22 to FY24. Paid claims for oral cancer saw a 151% rise over the same period.
“In FY24, ICICI Lombard processed 1,189 intimations for lung cancer, paying out 1,130 claims. This shows a high acceptance rate for lung cancer claims compared to 952 intimations and 887 claims paid in FY23. Similarly, for oral cancer, there were 1,400 intimations in FY24, resulting in 1,285 paid claims. In FY23, 1,243 intimations led to 1,108 claims paid,” said Priya Deshmukh, Head of Health Products and Operations Services, ICICI Lombard.
The increasing incidence of lung and oral cancers in India is highlighted by statistics from the National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research and the Indian Council of Medical Research. Government data shows a 5% increase in lung cancer cases between 2020 and 2022. Similarly, each year, more than 100,000 new cases are diagnosed, with a trend of rising oral cancer incidence among young adults, per the government data.  Oral cancer alone accounts for nearly one-third of the global burden, while lung cancer ranks among the top five most frequent cancers in India.
Health experts hold that tobacco use is a significant driver of this cancer epidemic. The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-2021) estimated that more than 16% of adults aged 15 and above in the country currently use some form of tobacco.
A report on Tobacco Control in India released in April 2024 has highlighted the growing link between tobacco use and cancer. Studies indicate that cancers of the lung, hypopharynx, and stomach are primarily induced by smoking, whereas cancers of the mouth, throat, and oesophagus are linked to both smoking and smokeless tobacco (SLT) use. Bidi smoking has been found to pose a cancer risk comparable to, or exceeding, that of cigarette smoking. Environmental tobacco smoke, or second-hand smoke, significantly contributes to lung cancer.
Vigyan Mishra, Chief of Lab at Neuberg Diagnostics in Noida, emphasised regional variations in tobacco use and cancer rates across India. “In Northern and Central India, the high prevalence of smokeless tobacco products like gutka, paan masala, and khaini significantly contributes to rising oral cancer rates. Cultural practices and the easy availability of these products exacerbate the issue,” he said.
He further noted, “Southern and Eastern India show prevalent use of smoking and smokeless tobacco, leading to heightened incidences of lung and oral cancers. In rural areas, traditional tobacco products remain a major concern.”
Regarding urban areas, Mishra highlighted, “Cities are witnessing a surge in lung cancer due to severe air pollution from industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, and construction activities. Cities like Delhi and Mumbai are particularly noted for some of the highest air pollution levels globally.”
“Anti-tobacco campaigns should include stricter regulations, higher taxes, plain packaging, and robust public awareness efforts. Concurrently, pollution control measures must be enforced rigorously, promoting cleaner technologies. Additionally, expanding cancer screening and early detection programs, especially in high-risk areas, is crucial,” he said.

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