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In the three weeks since the Government released its disappointing children’s obesity plan, a lot has been said over who’s to blame for the nation’s obesity crisis.

When it comes to children, some have claimed it’s down to parents to ensure kids maintain a healthy weight. But parents can only do so much, and without the right information, they are hard pressed to make healthy choices for their children.

We believe it’s the Government’s responsibility to inform the public of health risks associated with being overweight or obese, and to ensure measures are in place to support parents and children.

And we’re not the only ones that feel the Government has failed in attempting to tackle childhood obesity. Health experts, MPs and even the CEO of Sainsbury’s have criticised the plan as being ‘weak’ and ‘watered down’.

But no matter who’s to blame, one thing that’s clear is that the message around the damage obesity causes, both in childhood and in adulthood, isn’t getting through – neither to the Government, nor the public.

This worrying conclusion has been reinforced today as we published new data showing that three in four people aren’t aware that obesity causes cancer.

And it raises some important questions over the Government’s long-term plans to tackle the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.

Obesity and Cancer

Being overweight or obese can cause up to 10 types of cancer, including, breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic tumours.

We’ve written before about how obesity can cause cancer, and tips on how to control your weight.

But are the public really aware of the health risks we are facing as a nation now that being overweight or obese is becoming the norm?

With a recent study we funded showing that if trends continue, almost three quarters (72 per cent) of the UK population will be overweight or obese by 2035 this question becomes all the more important.

Especially as these rising levels of obesity could cause a further 670,000 cases of cancer in the UK over the next 20 years.

Public awareness of obesity and cancer

Working with Professor Annie Anderson, public health nutrition expert at the University of Dundee, our in-house Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention asked 3293 people from the UK what they know about the health risks linked to obesity.

And the results were concerning.

When people were asked to name health conditions that could be caused by being overweight or obese, three in four didn’t know obesity caused cancer.

And when asked about which cancers can be caused by being overweight or obese, the answers were mostly focused on cancers of the digestive system, which makes sense, but not other organs, such as the reproductive organs.

The graphic below shows the level of public awareness of obesity as a risk factor for the four most common cancers related to obesity in the UK. Twice as many people (60 per cent) associated obesity with bowel cancer than with breast cancer (31 per cent).

But we also wanted to dig a little deeper and find out what was affecting public health knowledge, in particular people’s awareness of a link between obesity and cancer.

We looked to see if there was a relationship between social demographics such as age, gender or social grade (a classification system based on occupation) and cancer as a health risk caused by obesity. It turns out that while the public were generally unaware of the link between obesity and cancer, there was a small but significant gap in awareness between the highest and lowest social grades.

When asked which health conditions could result from being overweight or obese, only two in 10 people in the lowest two social grades listed cancer, compared to around three in 10 in the highest social grade.

This is particularly concerning because those from the lowest social grade are more likely to be overweight or obese than those from the highest social grade. Health Survey for England data has shown that around a third of men and women with no qualifications (NVQ1/CSE or equivalent) are obese compared to around a fifth of men and women who have a degree or equivalent qualification.

And when looking at childhood obesity, a quarter (24 per cent) of those from the most deprived group will leave primary school obese, compared to half as many (12 per cent) in the least deprived group.

The Government needs to be doing more to help all children maintain a healthy weight.

What can be done?

Knowing that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of cancer is one of the first steps in making informed choices that lead to a healthier lifestyle.

But to help bridge this gap, it’s important that public health messages and the ways that Government initiatives are targeted and tailored ensure equal access to health information for everyone.

People need to understand the link between cancer and obesity so that they feel they have the information to make decisions about their health.

But the knowledge of the risks isn’t always enough. To make good intentions reality, we need support from Government to promote healthy eating.

Tackling unhealthy food marketing to children is one of the biggest omissions from the Government’s obesity plan – action here would help more families eat better.

The evidence is clear – children who are exposed to junk food adverts are more likely to eat unhealthy food. Television channels in the UK aren’t allowed to show unhealthy adverts around children’s programmes.

But we want the Government to extend this to include programmes that families watch together – this measure would more than halve children’s exposure to this advertising.

The public need the information and support to make healthy choices. And it’s down to the Government to help them.

Lucie Hooper is a researcher in the Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention at Cancer Research UK

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