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To ‘Commit to Beat Cancer’, the Government must prevent more cancers

by Helen Haggart | Analysis

29 April 2010

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Cancer Research UK’s ‘Commit to Beat Cancer’ campaign calls on parliamentary candidates to pledge to keep cancer high on the political agenda.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring some of the issues behind these calls, looking at how Government could protect the UK’s research base, provide access to new treatments and tackle inequalities.

This week, Helen Haggart, policy researcher at Cancer Research UK, explains why all parties should commit to prevent more cancers.

As the old saying goes – prevention is better than cure.  This is as true for cancer as for other illnesses or health conditions.  The stark fact is that many thousands of cases of cancer in the UK could be avoided by individuals making healthy choices in their daily lives, such as stopping smoking, moderating alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and avoiding excessive sun exposure.

Cancer Research UK wants the next Government to increase awareness about these risk factors, and by the use of strategic interventions, encourage people to make better, healthier choices.



The most important change an individual can make to reduce their risk of developing cancer is to stop smoking. Smoking causes one in four cancer deaths in England, and nine out of ten cases of lung cancer. Over 80,000 people in England die from a smoking-related illness every year.

Great progress has been made in tobacco control over the last decade – the number of adults who smoke has fallen by a fifth, and the number of children becoming addicted has halved.  Tobacco advertising and sponsorship has been banned and smokefree legislation has been implemented, providing vital protection for workers from second-hand smoke.

Despite this progress more needs to be done.  There are still over 8 million people in England who smoke, and every year 200,000 children and young people become addicted.  As well as the human cost of tobacco use, there is also the considerable financial burden on the NHS.  It is estimated that the NHS spends £2.7 billion a year treating smoking-related diseases, not including the costs of illness and disease caused by second-hand smoke.  Smoking also costs British companies more than £5 billion a year in smoking-related illness absences and loss of productivity caused by smoking breaks. A recent report estimated the actual cost of smoking to society to be over £13 billion a year.

In order to further reduce the harm caused by tobacco, Cancer Research UK is calling on the next Government to make tobacco control a priority.  The measures passed by Parliament last year to remove displays of tobacco in shops and to prohibit tobacco vending machines should be implemented as a matter of urgency. These measures are vital to help prevent a new generation of young people from becoming smokers.

The next Government should also act to ensure the real price of tobacco remains high by increasing taxation, tackling smuggling and making further efforts to reduce second-hand smoke exposure, particularly to children and young people.



The 2007 Foresight report on obesity estimated that quarter of adults and a sixth of children in the UK are now obese and it’s expected that over half of the adult population could be obese by 2050 if current trends continue. This will have a considerable impact on the NHS, with the costs of overweight- and obesity-related illness expected to double to £10 billion by 2050. Foresight predicted that the wider costs to society and business could reach nearly £50 billion per year.

After smoking, keeping a healthy bodyweight is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of cancer.  Being overweight and obese not only increases the chances of getting cancer – it also increases the risk of dying from the disease.

Cancer Research UK believes that the next Government should develop a wide-ranging national obesity prevention strategy, which includes initiatives that increase levels of physical activity, improve diets and reduce energy intake, particularly among low income groups.

In particular, Cancer Research UK supports clear and accurate food labelling to help people make healthy dietary choices more easily, restrictions on the promotion of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar to children and steps to encourage the marketing of healthier choices, and action to encourage further reduction of fat, salt and sugar content in foods.



Malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is increasing at an alarming rate across the UK. More than 10,400 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma every year in the UK and over 2,600 lose their lives to the disease.  Melanoma is also one of the few cancers to affect young adults and is the most common cancer amongst 15-34 year olds.

The vast majority of skin cancers are caused by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation – from sunlight and sunbeds.  We know that children frequently gain easy access to sunbeds and use them in worrying numbers.  Research by Catherine Thomson, our Head of Statistical Information, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, showed that more than a quarter of a million children have used sunbeds.

In some areas of the country, such as Liverpool and Sunderland, around 20 per cent of 11-17 year old girls are using sunbeds and 50 per cent of 15-17 year old girls.

We were therefore delighted when earlier this year, Parliament passed an Act that will restrict the use of sunbeds to over 18s.  We look forward to working with the next Government on the development of the regulations; to ensure that all sunbed salons are staffed by appropriately trained personnel and that all adults are given appropriate health information about the risks associated with sunbed use.


Over the last 40 years alcohol consumption in England has increased dramatically, with 10 million people now drinking more than the recommended safe limits. We know that the more alcohol an individual consumes, the more they are increasing their risk of a range of cancers. It is estimated that 6 per cent of cancer deaths in the UK are caused by alcohol. This amounts to at least 9000 deaths each year.

As alcohol has become more affordable and accessible in the UK, so consumption has risen sharply. We are therefore calling on the Government to introduce a comprehensive strategy to reduce overall consumption levels of alcohol in the UK. It should include measures to increase the cost of alcohol; further restrictions on the marketing of alcohol; and the implementation of measures to tackle irresponsible licence holders.

Cancer Research UK also believes that more attention must be paid to the long-term health risks associated with alcohol consumption, rather than just concentrating on the dangers of binge drinking.  We want the next Government to invest in public information campaigns to raise awareness of the long-term health risks associated with drinking alcohol.

Email your candidates today

With your help, Cancer Research UK can persuade the next Government to implement the measures outlined above and prevent more people developing cancer, saving the NHS billions of pounds and, most importantly, saving many thousands of lives.

That’s why we’re asking you to help us get parliamentary candidates to Commit to Beat Cancer and ensure that all political parties are dedicated to tackling cancer inequalities.

Take action today.


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