Meat's as Much of a Drag on our Health as Tobacco

03/11/2015 12:00 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 09:12 GMT

"Warning: Consumption of this product increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and strokes."

I'm referring to meat. Last Monday, The World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer published a report ranking processed meats as group 1 carcinogens. Bacon, ham and sausages now rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer. While the WHO report has created a stir, it's not as if we haven't heard this news before. One recent study - which followed more than 120,000 people for up to 28 years - found that people who eat red and processed meats are more likely to die young. Study participants who ate 85 grams of unprocessed red meat a day - the equivalent of three thin slices of roast beef - had a 13 per cent increase in risk of death during the study period (a whopping 33 per cent of British people eat more than 100 grams of meat a day). Those who ate a daily serving of processed meat - such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon - had a 20 per cent greater risk. Researchers believe that the early deaths could've been prevented if the study participants had consumed fewer than 0.5 servings of red meat a day. That's not much - but it is still more than anyone needs.

Research shows that meat-eaters are about 40% more likely to get cancer than vegetarians and that people who eat animal-derived products tend to have 2.5 times more cardiac events, including heart attacks and strokes, than people who eat plant-based foods. Meat and dairy products have also been linked to diabetes and other serious illnesses. A World Preservation Foundation study found that 75 per cent of common chronic illnesses could be prevented if people ate vegan foods instead of meat, eggs and dairy products.

The World Cancer Research Fund has long been advising people that processed meat is a cancer hazard. Prof Tim Key, Cancer Research UK's epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said, "We've known for some time about the probable link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer, which is backed by substantial evidence", and groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have been warning people about the risks associated with consuming animal products more generally for years. Another recent study revealed that middle-aged people who eat protein-heavy diets are four times as likely to die of cancer as those who eat only a little protein. According to the study, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism, eating as much protein as the average meat- and dairy-eater increases the risk of developing cancer almost as much as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Since we were first warned of the toxic effects of smoking on our health in the 1960s, Western governments have doggedly and effectively pursued policies to limit the advertising, the display and our exposure to tobacco products resulting in a sharp decline in smoking and its social acceptability. Since processed meats and other animal-based foods have been conclusively linked to cancer and other life-threatening diseases, they should carry the same warning labels.

The government has repeatedly warned people that tobacco products are deadly, banned tobacco industry billboards and television advertisements, forbidden tobacco firms from sponsoring sporting events, prohibited public smoking and tobacco displays, and fought for warning labels on tobacco products. It could save the lives of more people, not to mention animals, if it treated the meat and dairy companies the same way it treats the tobacco industry - with zero tolerance.

The latest statistics suggest that around 10 million adults in Britain still smoke - but more than 60 million Britons currently eat meat and dairy products. Even if the government pushed for warning labels on meat and dairy products only half as hard as it pushes for plain-packaging on cigarettes, more people would realise that tobacco isn't the only cancer-causing thing you can put in your mouth - and hopefully take that warning to heart.