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Obesity overtakes smoking as lead cause of four cancers

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A leading cancer charity has called for “urgent” action from the government to tackle obesity, as new analysis shows that excess weight is causing more cases of certain cancers than smoking.

The investigation by Cancer Research UK has revealed that being obese “trumps” smoking as the leading cause of four different types of cancer: bowel, kidney, ovarian and liver. 

“Scientists have so far identified that obesity causes 13 types of cancer”

Michelle Mitchell

The charity found that people who are obese now outnumber people who smoke in the UK, two to one.

According to Cancer Research UK, additional body fat sends out signals that can tell cells to divide more often, which can cause damage that builds up over time and raises the risk of cancer.

As part of its new campaign launched this week, the charity is calling on the government to introduce a watershed on junk food adverts to help prevent childhood obesity and reduce the risk of cancer.

In its new analysis, the charity found that excess weight causes around 1,900 more cases of bowel cancer than smoking does in the UK every year.

In addition, it said excess weight accounts for 1,400 more cases of kidney cancer annually than those caused by smoking.

For ovarian cancer, there are 460 more cases a year for excess weight than smoking, and for liver cancer there are 180 more cases.

As figures show almost a third of adults in the UK are obese, the charity’s new campaign aims to increase awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. It compares smoking and obesity, in a bid to highlight how policy and government-led changes can help people form healthier habits.

“Swapping junk food for healthier options and keeping active can all add up to help reduce cancer risk”

 Professor Linda Bauld

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, 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,” she said.

“Scientists have so far identified that obesity causes 13 types of cancer, but the mechanisms aren’t fully understood,” said Ms Mitchell. “So further research is needed to find out more about the ways extra body fat can lead to cancer.”

As part of its new campaign, the charity is calling on 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.

It also wants to see the government work towards restricting the use of promotional offers on unhealthy food and drinks.

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

“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,” she added.

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