In Brief

Lifestyle choices are behind four in 10 cancers

Cancer Research UK says that giving up smoking and cutting down on calories could see cancer rates fall dramatically

More than four out of 10 cancers – and as many as 2,500 per week in the UK alone – could be prevented if people led healthier lives, experts say.

New figures from Cancer Research UK show that smoking is the biggest avoidable risk factor for cancer, followed by unhealthy diets and drinking.

Dr Katrina Brown, the lead author of the study at Cancer Research, told The Guardian: “Lung cancer contributes well over half of those smoking-related cases, but there are also thousands of cancers of smoking-related bladder, oesophageal and bowel cancers every year to name just a few.” 

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, is based on surveys, cancer registries and analyses of data from scientific papers. According to its findings, alcohol, low-fibre diets and “infections such as HPV” each account for just over 3% of cancer cases per year in the UK.

Exposure to substances such as asbestos and UV radiation in the workplace each caused almost 4% of cancer cases, while air pollution, consumption of processed meat and not breastfeeding each accounted for less than 2% of cancer cases.

Smoking rates in the UK are currently understood to be falling at a rate of about 1% a year. Cancer Research has also expressed its concern over excess weight and obesity – the second leading preventable cause of cancer – which accounts for 6.3% of all UK cancer cases.

The team said they hoped the government would learn from “the success of measures such as advertising restrictions, tobacco taxes and standardised packaging in cutting smoking rates”, and suggested that major brands should promote healthier options.

Public Health England recently published a rule of thumb guideline to combat the obesity crisis. It said people should aim for 400 calories at breakfast, 600 calories for lunch and 600 calories for dinner. Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Subway and Greggs have signed up to the “400-600-600” plan and agreed to signpost customers towards lower-calorie options.

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