Obesity has become 'the new smoking' and will fuel weight-related cancers, head of NHS warns

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Obesity has become “the new smoking” and is set to fuel double the number of weight-related cancers within two decades, the head of the NHS today warns. 

Simon Stevens raised fears that the UK is apeing the United States, as medics warned that today’s deadly lifestyles could set back decades of medical advances.

The NHS forecasts show that by 2035, the health service is set to be treating more than 40,000 cases of cancer linked to excess weight – a rise from around 22,800 in 2015. 

By 2030, there will be around 36,800 such cases annually – around 100 a day – the statistics suggest. 

And by 2043, obesity is set to overtake smoking as being the leading preventable cause of cancer in women.

Mr Stevens warned that obesity has become “the new smoking,” as 40,000 medics today met for the world’s largest cancer conference. 

The chief executive of the NHS, said: “While cancer survival is at a record high, many people don’t yet realise that obesity causes cancer. On current trends by 2030 we could see 100 new patients every day being diagnosed with obesity-related cancer. 

“So obesity is the new smoking, and if we continue to pile on the pounds, we’re heading for thousands more avoidable cancer deaths every year.”

Britain has the highest rates of obesity in Western Europe, with rates of obesity rising even faster than those in the United States. 

Around 29 per cent of UK adults are now obese – twice the level in 1993.

Mr Stevens will today say: “The NHS can’t win the ‘battle of the bulge’ on its own – families, food businesses and government all need to play their part if we’re to avoid copying America’s damaging and costly obesity epidemic.”

The warnings come as research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (Asco) in Chicago warns of the global impact of the obesity epidemic. 

Harvard University expert Dr Jennifer Ligibel will today present evidence showing the impact of obesity on breast cancer, calling for more action to prevent deadly weight gain. 

She raised fears that the rapid rise in obesity could soon reverse medical gains in cancer.

Dr Ligibel, from Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said: “It is very troubling. We are making major advances in cancer therapies and treatment, but the risk is that obesity could undercut all of this. 

“We are also learning that with some cancers it seems the level of adiposity could make the disease more aggressive.

“This is a global problem – at the moment the US has higher levels of obesity but the UK is catching up. 

“We really don’t yet know the full consequences that obesity could bring in terms of cancer.” 

Dr Ligibel, who will today present research on breast cancer and weight management said people needed more help to lose weight. 

She said slimming programmes could help people to make long-term changes, which could reduce their risk of cancer.

“There is a really clear relationship between weight and obesity, we know that it causes a higher risk of developing a dozen different cancers. 

“It’s about keeping your body within a healthy weight range, taking regular exercise, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, lean meat products, limiting alcohol intake.

“Obesity is now one of the greatest challenges facing the world,” she said. 

Today she will present a body of evidence about the impact of weight on breast cancer, including studies which suggest every 11 lbs weight gain increases the risk of the disease by up to eight per cent. 

Her lecture will also highlight studies showing that those following at least five healthy lifestyle tips drawn up by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) had a 60 per cent lower risk of breast cancer. 

The advice includes staying a healthy weight, being physically active and limiting alcohol, salt and meat. 

Dr Kate Allen, executive director of science and public affairs at WCRF said the figures were “shocking”.

“We know that obesity is a cause of at least 12 different types of cancer and with over 60 per cent of UK adults overweight or obese, serious action is needed if we are to prevent a rise in obesity related cancers, as this rise is not inevitable.”

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “These are extremely worrying numbers that paint a bleak picture, and should be a wakeup call to the Government.

“Being overweight or obese is the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking. Extra fat in the body doesn’t just sit there, it’s active, sending out signals that can tell cells in our body to divide more often, which can increase the risk of cancer.”

She accused ministers of “dragging their feet” and failing to tackle childhood obesity, urging them to introduce a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts which has been proposed.



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