People who are obese now outnumber people who smoke two to one in the UK, according to new figures from Cancer Research UK, which said excess weight causes more cases of certain cancers than smoking.
It has launched a nationwide campaign to increase awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. Extra body fat sends out signals that can tell cells to divide more often and, similar to smoking, can cause damage that builds up over time and raises the risk of cancer, it said.
Almost a third of UK adults were obese, added the charity, and, while smoking was still the nation’s biggest preventable cause of cancer and carries a much higher risk of the disease than obesity, Cancer Research UK’s analysis revealed that being overweight or obese trumped smoking as the leading cause of four different types of cancer.
Excess weight causes around 1,900 more cases of bowel cancer than smoking in the UK each year, it claimed. The same worrying pattern was true of cancer in the kidneys (1,400 more cases caused by excess weight than by smoking each year in the UK), ovaries (460) and liver (180).
‘Policy change can help people form healthier habits’
The charity said it was not comparing obesity with smoking – and denied claims it was ‘fat-shaming’. It stated it wanted to illustrate how policy change can help people form healthier habits.
"As smoking rates fall and obesity rates rise, we can clearly see the impact on a national health crisis when the government puts policies in place – and when it puts its head in the sand,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive at Cancer Research UK.
"Our children could be a smoke-free generation, but we’ve hit a devastating record high for childhood obesity, and now we need urgent government intervention to end the epidemic. They still have a chance to save lives.
"Scientists have so far identified that obesity causes 13 types of cancer but the mechanisms aren’t fully understood. So further research is needed to find out more about the ways extra body fat can lead to cancer."
Cancer Research backs a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts
The charity wants the government to act on its ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 and introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts on TV and online, alongside other measures such as restricting promotional offers on unhealthy food and drinks.
“Our campaign aims to raise awareness of the link between obesity and cancer, and to inspire policies that create a healthier environment. We have a responsibility to tell people about what might increase the risk of cancer – and having run the campaign several times, surveys have repeatedly shown that 84% of people agree that it’s an important message that needs to be communicated,” continued Mitchell.
“Like smoking, obesity puts millions of adults at greater risk of cancer – and like smoking rates, obesity rates can be reduced with government-led change. Smoking rates in the UK have dropped dramatically over the years, thanks to measures like higher tobacco taxes and marketing bans; now we need a similar approach to tackle obesity. Incessant adverts and price promotions can nudge us towards junk food, so we need the government to build on lessons learnt from smoking prevention and put policies in place that make it easier for everyone to keep a healthy weight.”
Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, added: "There isn’t a silver bullet to reduce obesity, but the huge fall in smoking over the years – partly thanks to advertising and environmental bans – shows that government-led change works. It was needed to tackle sky-high smoking rates, and now the same is true for obesity.
"The world we live in doesn’t make it easy to be healthy and we need government action to fix that, but people can also make changes themselves; small things like swapping junk food for healthier options and keeping active can all add up to help reduce cancer risk."
The UK’s likely new prime minister hints at a laissez-faire approach to food industry legislation
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson – the current favourite to become the next leader of the UK ruling Conservative Party and therefore the country’s new prime minister – waded into to the debate. He said he would review levies on foods high in salt, fat and sugar, which he claimed unfairly targeted the less-well off in society. He vowed not to introduce any new ones until the review is complete.
The country was one of the first in Europe to introduce a sugar tax on sweetened beverages.
However, Johnson told a leadership campaign rally that "sin taxes" were disproportionately paid by poorer families. He called the current evidence that they reduced the consumption of unhealthy foods "ambiguous" and said he wanted to see proof that taxes "actually stop people from being so fat".
"We have got to deal with obesity, but we have got to do it in a way that is evidence based," he said.
The’s Royal Society for Public Health chief executive, Shirley Cramer, said she was "bitterly disappointed" with Johnson's "short-sighted" proposal.
"We should be building on the success of the sugar levy, not turning back the clock on the progress that has been made so far," she said.
Cancer Research UK agreed that the so-called “sin taxes” had "a positive effect”. Mitchell said: "They have been highly effective in bringing down smoking rates to record lows, including within deprived communities. Physical activity is one way to lose weight, but the government also has a big role to play if we are to significantly reduce obesity levels."