New Campaign Tackles Ignorance Over Obesity-Cancer Link

Liam Davenport

March 07, 2018

An educational campaign that highlights obesity as a leading cause of cancer has been launched by a leading cancer charity in the United Kingdom.  Experts have welcomed it, but others have criticized it for "fat-shaming."

The campaign, debuted on February 26 by Cancer Research UK, follows data showing that more than one in six people do not know that obesity is a leading cause of cancer.

To illustrate the lack of awareness of the importance of obesity in cancer risk, the charity showed fake cigarette packets to UK shoppers, asking them to name the second biggest preventable cause of cancer.

The shoppers were surprised to find that the fake cigarette packet contained chips and that the answer to the question was obesity.

Alison Cox, director for cancer prevention at Cancer Research UK, said in a release, "Being overweight is the UK's biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking, but most people don't know about this substantial risk."

If more people become aware of the link, it may help spare them from cancer, she added.

Linda Bauld, PhD, Cancer Research UK's prevention expert, and professor of health policy at the University of Stirling, United Kingdom, said, "Research shows that our evolving environment has a vital role to play in the obesity crisis."

"Clever marketing tactics by the food industry and greater access to unhealthy food are all likely to have contributed to the rise in obesity rates."

Obesity Increasing, Lack of Action 

The campaign was launched  after Cancer Research UK found that 15% of people are not aware of the link between obesity and the disease.

This is despite a recent International Agency for Research on Cancer report saying that strong evidence links bodyweight with 13 types of cancer, including esophageal, breast, pancreatic, kidney, bowel, and ovarian cancer.

To support the campaign, the charity's statistical team used data from the Health Survey for England to calculate the prevalence of overweight and obesity at age 35 to 44 years among baby boomers (people born between 1945 and 1955) and also for millennials (people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s).

The results showed that over 70% of millennials are expected to be overweight or obese between 35 and 44 years of age, compared with just 50% of baby boomers when they were the same age.

The charity warns that millennials are due to become the most overweight generation since current records began.

"These figures paint a worrying picture for the future. We cannot overlook concrete evidence that being overweight increases the risk of developing breast cancer,"

commented Rachel Rawson, a senior clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, in a report in The Guardian.

"It's within our grasp to make simple lifestyle changes like bumping up exercise and eating a healthy balanced diet," she said. "However, other risk factors, such as being a woman and getting older, remain out of women's control."

Russell Viner, MD, PhD, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, also quoted in The Guardian, described the new campaign as "hugely welcome, long overdue," and "necessarily hard-hitting."

"We know that despite the well-publicised obesity problem, there remains limited appetite to take bold steps to combat it. There is a danger that being overweight is becoming normalised, as we know that many people struggle to recognise obesity in themselves, and often are unable to see when their child is overweight," Viner said.

Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, told The Daily Mail that the figures quoted by Cancer Research UK were "horrifying."

"They are the result of successive governments paying only lip-service to tackling an obesity crisis which was already headlines twenty years ago," Fry said.

However, not everyone welcomed the campaign.

Sophie Hagen, a Danish comedian and body-positive campaigner living in London, lashed out at Cancer Research UK in a series of expletive-laden tweets, calling the campaign "incredibly damaging."

One of her tweets stated that: "Society viewing fatness as a negative thing is a thing that kills more than the cancer that you MIGHT get due to MAYBE something to do with you POSSIBLY weighing MORE than a CERTAIN weight POSSIBLY MAYBE."

In a BBC report that highlighted the comments made by Hagen, two experts suggested that the way that obesity and overweight are currently discussed should be changed.  

Stuart Flint, PhD, School of Sport, Leeds Beckett University, United Kingdom, told the BBC that  overweight people are routinely stigmatized, or "fat shamed," in the media, in the workplace, and even by health professionals.

He said, "It's suggested to us that people can reduce their weight very quickly, and that's clearly not the case. It's a chronic condition that takes place over many years."

Nick Finer, MD, a consultant endocrinologist and bariatric physician at University College London, United Kingdom, agreed, saying that some people see it as "legitimate" to blame people for being overweight, but that does not take into account the food environment.

"If somebody falls off a boat into the water and they can't swim and they drown, nobody says, 'It's your fault, you should have held your breath'," he said.

"They happen to be in an environment where it's very easy to drown," Finer said. "We're in an environment now where it's very easy to overacquire calories and energy."

Cancer Research UK defended the campaign, with Bauld telling The Metro that the aim "is to raise awareness of the fact that obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking."

She said, "This is not about fat shaming. It is based on scientific evidence and designed to give important information to the public."

No funding was reported. No relevant financial relationships have been disclosed.

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