Poor lifestyle causing 100,000 avoidable cancers a year

Doctors have urged tougher action on alcohol and tobacco use from the government after research showed a third of all cancers in the UK are caused by avoidable lifestyle factors.

Royal College of Physicians (RCP) president Sir Richard Thompson said the figures were a 'wake up call' for the government. He said public health policies must take a firmer line.

He said: ‘The rising incidence of preventable cancers shows that the ‘carrot’ approach of voluntary agreements with industry is not enough to prompt healthy behaviours, and needs to be replaced by the ‘stick’ approach of legislative solutions.’

The systematic review by Cancer Research UK found up to 40% of all cancers diagnosed each year in the UK are caused avoidable risk factors, the majority of these linked to lifestyle choices.

Smoking was the leading lifestyle risk factor, causing 60,800 cancers each year - nearly one in five of all cancers.

As many as 23% of cancers in men and 15.6% in women are caused by the habit.

In men, the next most common cancer-causing factors were a lack of fruit and vegetables (6.1%) and occupational hazards such as asbestos exposure (4.9%).

In women, weight was the second most common risk factor for cancer after smoking, with 7% of cases linked to being overweight or obese.

This was followed by infections such as HPV (3.7%) and excessive sun exposure (3.6%).

Alcohol was linked to 4.6% of cancers in men and 3.3% of cancers in women.

Other risk factors included radiation, lack of physical exercise, lack of breast feeding, hormones, red and processed meat, lack of fibre and too much salt.

Study author Professor Max Parkin, a Cancer Research UK epidemiologist based at Queen Mary, University of London, said: 'Looking at all the evidence, it’s clear that around 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change.'

Researchers were surprised that so many cancers are caused by lack of fruit and vegetables in men and excessive weight in women, he said.

Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: 'Leading a healthy life doesn’t guarantee that a person won’t get cancer but this study shows that healthy habits can significantly stack the odds in our favour.'

He added: 'While we have made tremendous progress in improving the chance of surviving cancer during the last 40 years, we need to make sure people are made aware of the risks of getting the disease in the first place so they can make the healthiest possible lifestyle choices.'

The RCP wants the government to increase the price and reduce the availability of alcohol.

It also wants the introduction of measures to prevent the uptake of smoking, the promotion of smoke-free homes, banning smoking in cars, introducing plain packaging for cigarettes, and further supporting people to give up smoking.

The research was published in the British Journal of Cancer Supplement.

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