‘Dire need’ for labels on alcohol and ads about unhealthy eating to cut avoidable cancers

Hard-hitting TV campaigns about the dangers of unhealthy eating and labels on alcohol are needed to curb the huge rise in avoidable cancers, charities and health campaigners have warned.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) said mass media campaigns, using tough messages mirroring the graphic photographs and wording on cigarette packets, were now needed to tackle the widespread lack of awareness that alcohol and being overweight are both major causes of cancer.

“There is a dire need for impactful campaigns to highlight important health messages and to reduce the risk of preventable cancers,” said Dr Pangiota Mitrou, the WCRF’s director of research.

“History shows that sometimes very graphic, hard-hitting tactics in campaigns – even images that risk upsetting some people – are necessary to alert the public to the dangers of unhealthy behaviour,” she added.

Doctors and public health campaigners are demanding that all cans and bottles of alcohol carry labels highlighting that drinking raises the risk of fatal illnesses, including cancer. Ireland recently became the first country in the world to legislate to do that. In future, labels on alcohol products will warn drinkers that “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.

Governments have previously used public health adverts that deployed “scare tactics”, such as fat oozing out of an artery to illustrate the dangers of smoking.

About 40% of all cancers are preventable because they are caused by known risk factors, mainly smoking, alcohol, obesity and sunburn, the WCRF and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) believe.

A report last week by Frontier Economics estimated that 184,000 cases of avoidable cancer would be diagnosed in the UK this year, which would cost the country £78bn.

Alcohol has been shown to cause seven forms of cancer while strong evidence has found that overweight and obese adults – two-thirds of Britons weigh more than their healthy weight – are at heightened risk of 14 different forms of the disease, according to WCRF, which tracks global changes in the evidence base for what causes cancer.

Bartender pouring beer behind a bar counter at night
Drinking alcohol has been shown to cause seven forms of cancer, the WCRF says. Photograph: Mariusz Szczawinski/Alamy

Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of CRUK, called for a revival of the use of arresting public health adverts to help the UK’s 6 million smokers, most of whom want to give up. But she voiced concern that government funding for such initiatives has fallen sharply.

“Mass media campaigns can be highly impactful and cost-effective in motivating people to stop smoking and discouraging uptake, but they must be of sufficient intensity and be sustained to see continued benefit. Yet national spending in England on public education campaigns has significantly dropped since 2008. We’re calling on the UK government to better fund stop smoking services and public health campaigns to help people quit for good,” she said.

Mitchell said that most people knew that smoking caused cancer, but awareness of other risk factors – notably obesity – remained “worryingly low”.

Hazel Cheeseman, the deputy chief executive of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said that while campaigns such as Stoptober were proven to help smokers quit, “the evidence says that hard-hitting health messages are what change behaviour”.

She voiced alarm that Ash’s latest annual Smokefree GB survey, of 12,000 adults who were weighted to reflect the UK population as a whole, had found barely half (55%) of 18- to 24-year-olds who smoke knew that doing so caused cancer, while even fewer were aware that it also caused strokes (46%), heart disease (50%) and lung problems (55%). That was far fewer than the very large majorities of those aged 25 or over who were aware of those links.

“Lack of health messages on TV, online, radio and billboards will be contributing to lower levels of understanding among all young smokers, but particularly young smokers who won’t recall the hard-hitting campaigns of the past,” said Cheeseman. More young adults began smoking when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and have maintained their habit since, figures suggest.

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Woman in red woollen hat with long blond hair smoking roll-up cigarette on beach with cliffs in background
Most people knew smoking causes cancer but awareness of other risk factors, notably obesity, was ‘worryingly low’, said the deputy chief executive of the campaign group Ash. Photograph: Cultura Creative RF/Alamy

Ash’s research also found that while 86% of people knew smoking caused cancer, only 54% were aware that obesity was a key risk factor and 53% knew that alcohol was one. While the number of people who smoke has been falling steadily for years, other measures as well as advertising campaigns – such as raising the legal age of buying cigarettes from 18 to 21 – were needed to get it down further, said Cheeseman.

The Alcohol Health Alliance, a grouping of medical organisations and health charities, wants the UK to follow Ireland’s example on warning labels.

Dr Sadie Boniface, head of research at the Institute of Alcohol Studies thinktank, said the move would improve the “very low” levels of awareness that alcohol caused cancer. “The fox has been left in charge of the hen house, with the alcohol industry self-regulating its own product labelling. A couple of years ago the government promised a consultation on alcohol labelling but it is yet to materialise,” she said.

Health charities urged ministers to learn from the success of public health education campaigns run in the north-east by Fresh and Balance, which are funded by local NHS trusts and local councils. The groups, which target smoking and harmful drinking, specialise in hard-hitting mass media ads.

In Fresh’s “smoking survivors” campaign, two women who got cancer after smoking spoke of their regret at ever taking up cigarettes. Fresh believes that this and other campaigns it has run have helped to cut smoking in the north-east from 29% in 2005 to 13% – the biggest fall in any English region.

Ailsa Rutter, the director of both groups, said the use of striking and emotionally charged messages would be vital if the government was to achieve its stated ambition of making England “smoke-free” – defined as 5% or fewer of the population smoking – by 2030.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling the causes of preventable cancers to help people live longer, healthier lives and reduce pressure on the NHS.

“The government has introduced calorie labelling, a £40m pilot to give eligible patients living with obesity access to effective obesity drugs, a million free vaping starter kits to help smokers quit and reforms to tax products directly in proportion to their alcohol content.

“The government also runs regular national campaigns to highlight the risks of smoking and obesity – like the annual Stoptober campaign.”

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