Obesity 'to Become Biggest Preventable Cause of UK Female Cancers'

Nicky Broyd

September 24, 2018

As smoking recedes as the main preventable cause of cancers in the UK, a new report predicts obesity will take over in women in the next quarter of a century.

The report from Cancer Research UK has prompted strong reactions from health groups and officials, with Public Health England (PHE) saying "bold action" on obesity is now required.

The Report

The report comes from Cancer Research UK's Cancer Intelligence Team, Policy & Information Directorate, and is called When could overweight  and obesity overtake smoking as the biggest cause of cancer in the UK ?

The data build on earlier work by the charity that found that around 4 in 10 cases of cancer in the UK are preventable.

The research team took UK smoking prevalence data, and with estimates of the impact smoking has on cancer risk, made its calculations using UK cancer registry figures. This historical data was then extrapolated into forward-looking projections.

Statistical techniques used include microsimulation, population attributable fraction (PAF), and relative risk (RR).

The charity says its report has not been peer reviewed but Dr Katrina Brown says on the charity's science blog: "Whilst the figures are based on projections, we're using peer-reviewed methods, so we're confident in our approach."

And she acknowledges there are many variables in play: "We can't project cancer rates too far in the future because there are just too many uncertainties, especially with new research in cancer prevention and diagnosis.

"Generally speaking we don't project cancer figures more than 20 years into the future. For these analyses, we used cancer incidence projections up to 2035."

Gender Differences

Because more men smoke than women, there are more smoking-related cancers in men. However, the researchers found a difference when it came to weight and although statistically more men than woman are overweight or obese, obesity has a bigger effect on more common female cancers, including breast cancer and uterine cancer.

Cancer Research UK's prevention expert Professor Linda Bauld, said: "Obesity is a huge public health threat right now, and it will only get worse if nothing is done. The UK Government must build on the lessons of smoking prevention to reduce the number of weight-related cancers by making it easier to keep a healthy weight and protect children, as those who are overweight are five times more likely to be so as an adult."

'Bold Action' Needed

She continued: "The decline in smoking is a cause for celebration. It shows how decades of effort to raise awareness about the health risks plus strong political action including taxation, removing tobacco marketing and a ban on smoking in indoor public places, have paid off. But, just as there is still more to do to support people to quit smoking, we also need to act now to halt the tide of weight-related cancers and ensure this projection never becomes a reality."

Reacting to the report, PHE Chief Nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone, said: "We've seen a sea-change in smoking, with levels at their lowest ever and we're now on the brink of the first-ever smoke-free generation in England.

"Bold action is needed to tackle obesity, the challenge of a generation. We're at the forefront of turning the tide – our sugar and calorie reduction programme and the Government's sugar levy are world-leading, but this is just the beginning of a long journey."

Dr Max Davie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) officer for health promotion, said: "We know that a child is more likely to become overweight or obese if a parent is overweight or obese, and as Cancer Research UK say today, this increases their risk of cancer. Chapter two of the Government's childhood obesity plan rightly focuses on prevention and if proposals are implemented, this plan will pave the way to better child health. However, in the meantime, we still require investment in services to treat those children who are already overweight or obese. 

"Only with this two pronged approach will we prevent the next generation of obese children and reduce the likelihood of people who are overweight or obese now, going on to develop cancer."

The Obesity Health Alliance includes the BMA, Diabetes UK, and the British Heart Foundation. Its lead, Caroline Cerny, said: "It is alarming that obesity could soon become the biggest preventable cause of cancer in women, but sadly not surprising. We already know that obesity increases the risk of not only cancer, but other life-changing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Environmental factors such as advertising and promotion of unhealthy food and drink are contributing to this public health crisis. That's why we support Government action to reduce levels of childhood obesity, and are calling for restrictions on junk food marketing of all types, including a 9pm watershed on TV."


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