Obesity is set to overtake smoking as the leading preventable cause of cancer in women in the UK, a new report warns.
Cancer Research UK estimated that 23,000 British women will suffer from obesity-related cancers by 2035 – just 2,000 fewer than the number of cases caused by smoking.
By 2043 obesity will become the most common cause of cancer in women if current trends continue, the charity found.
Smoking is currently linked to 12.4% of cancers in UK women, compared to 7.5% that are caused by obesity, according to the British Journal of Cancer.
The gap between the two causes in men is wider because more British men smoke, with 17.7% of cancers among men caused by smoking compared to 5.2% by obesity. A similar change in the leading cause of cancer in males is therefore likely to happen much later, the report says.
The charity analyzed cancer incidence data between 1979 and 2014 to make the projections and used the results as a further call for national campaigns and legislation to reduce the prevalence of obesity by following the blueprint used for smoking campaigns.
“Obesity is a huge public health threat right now, and it will only get worse if nothing is done,” said Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert.
“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,” she added.
“Bold action” needed on obesity
Over a quarter of the UK’s population is obese, and the country has the highest obesity rates in western Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
While the new study focuses on women, Charlotte Bevan, professor of cancer biology at Imperial College London, told CNN that the trends are inevitable across both genders.
“As smoking rates in men fall, we will see the same trend in men and women – with obesity becoming a bigger killer than smoking,” said Bevan who was not involved in the report.
“Many of the physical and chemical changes in the body caused by obesity can promote cancer and can actually help certain cancers to spread, such as prostate and breast cancer,” added Bevan, who was not involved in the report.
Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the country had seen a “sea change in smoking,” but added: “Bold action is needed to tackle obesity, the challenge of a generation.”
Earlier this year, the health body urged the food industry to cut calories in everyday foods by a fifth, which they said could prevent 35,000 premature deaths annually.
“It is alarming that obesity could soon become the biggest preventable cause of cancer in women, but sadly not surprising,” said Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of over 40 organizations and charities working to reduce obesity.
“Environmental factors such as advertising and promotion of unhealthy food and drink are contributing to this public health crisis,” Cerny added.