'Obesity Is The New Smoking' Says NHS In Response To Cancer Report

Obesity now causes more cases of some cancers than smoking

Obese people now outnumber smokers in the UK by two to one, according to new figures from Cancer Research UK, which says “excess weight [is] causing more cases of certain cancers than smoking”.

The charity is urging the government to take action to tackle obesity in the same week it faced a backlash over its new advertising campaign, which some people suggested is fuelling “weight stigma” and shaming people who are obese.

But Cancer Research UK has the full support of the NHS in the campaign – Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the charity’s study “is further proof that obesity is the new smoking”.

“The NHS can’t win the ‘battle against the bulge’ on its own; families, food businesses and government all need to play their part if we’re to avoid copying America’s damaging and costly example,” Stephens said.

Ken Lynch / HuffPost UK

There are around 14.9 million obese adults in the UK, which is roughly 29% of the adult UK population. Obesity is typically diagnosed based on a person’s body mass index (BMI) and their waist circumference. While there are studies that suggest a person can be obese and healthy, there is also evidence to suggest that obesity can increase the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Smoking is still the nation’s biggest preventable cause of cancer and carries a much higher risk of the disease than obesity, but analysis by Cancer Research UK revealed that being overweight or obese now trumps 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, the charity said. The same pattern is true of cancer in the kidneys – 1,400 more cases are caused by excess weight than by smoking each year in the UK – as well as ovarian and liver cancer.

The charity has launched a nationwide campaign to increase awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. New adverts feature cigarette packaging but in place of tobacco branding is the phrase: “Obesity is a cause of cancer too.”

The campaign has not gone down well on social media. Ken Lynch, 46, who first a billboard at Freshfields station near Formby called the advert “a new low”.

The microbrewery owner from Rochdale told HuffPost UK that he objected to the advert for its “negative view of obesity and, by association, food and drink”.

“Linking obesity to smoking is too simplistic,” he said. “Smokers can stop smoking. People who are overweight or obese can’t suddenly be non-obese, it takes time and serious effort. I think this advert undermines that effort.”

The chief cause of obesity is poor diet and a lack of exercise, according to NHS Choices. However there are other causes of obesity – it can occur as a result of a genetic condition (such as Prader-Willi syndrome) or an underlying medical condition. An underactive thyroid gland can cause weight gain, for example, as can Cushing’s syndrome. Some types of medication cause a person to gain weight, which can result in obesity. These include corticosteroids, epilepsy medication, diabetes medicine and some drugs used to treat mental illness.

There are also clear ties between obesity and poverty. One survey found that of the 10 areas in England worst affected by overweight or obese children, half were also the worst 10 areas for child poverty.

Fiona Quigley, who is researching weight-related communication in healthcare for her PhD at Ulster University, callled on Twitter for Cancer Research UK to “stop standing on the shoulders of fat people” suggesting the charity directly lobbied “the real people responsible for this current situation” namely, Quigley said, food manufacturers and the government.

Cancer Research UK has insisted the aim of comparing smoking and obesity in the campaign is to show how policy change can help people form healthier habits – not to compare tobacco and food consumption. Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “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.

“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 identified that obesity causes 13 types of cancer but the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, she said, adding that further research is needed to find out more about the ways extra body fat can lead to cancer.

The charity wants the government to act on its ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 by introducing a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts, alongside restricting promotional offers on unhealthy food and drinks.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “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.”

Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at Obesity Health Alliance (a coalition of over 40 health organisations), said in response: “The causes of obesity are complex, but we know that the environment we live in plays a huge role, and currently this is heavily skewed towards unhealthy options.”