More Britons 'get' links between lifestyle and cancer, but poor diet and lifestyle are still the norm

4 February 2015

More Britons than ever appear to know about the links between lifestyle and cancer risk according to a survey carried out by a leading cancer prevention charity.

But there is a gap between “awareness and action”, meaning the changes to lifestyle that could prevent many cancers, are not happening.

World Cancer Research Fund is using World Cancer Day to highlight the level of public awareness that now exists.

The charity is urging government, charities and health professionals to view it as an opportunity not to be wasted and to think carefully about the specific, focused and achievable actions that will enable and support healthier lifestyle choices.

Since 2010, the charity has been tracking public awareness of these links, with smoking regularly topping the list (83% in this year’s poll).

But this year’s survey, carried out by YouGov, provides evidence that public awareness of risk factors other than smoking has also increased since 2010.

The survey found that:

  • Nearly two thirds (62%) of Britons link being overweight with increased cancer risk, up from 55% since 2010;
  • More than half (58%) think there is a link between poor diet and increased cancer risk (a figure that has been stable since 2010) when it was 57%;
  • Half (49%) know about the importance of physical activity, the highest score since WCRF began recording public opinion; and
  • Stronger awareness of the links between being overweight, eating a poor diet and physical inactivity and cancer risk in the devolved regions of Wales and Scotland (see notes to editors)

But there are also areas of concern in the level of public understanding, including:

  • A substantial gap between social groups, with households from the higher social classes much more aware of the links between being overweight, eating a poor diet and physical inactivity and cancer risk than households from the lower social classes (see notes to editors);
  • Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1990) appear less well informed about a range of cancer risks, including smoking (75%); and
  • Fewer people think there is a link between alcohol and cancer risk (54%) down from a high of 61% recorded in 2012 despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Despite overall greater awareness, Britons are still failing to make the lifestyle changes that could help minimise their cancer risk. We still eat too much saturated fat, sugar and salt whilst not eating enough fruit and vegetables. (Source: National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2014)

Amanda McLean, Director of World Cancer Research Fund UK, said: "We are in a position now where we are fairly sure what the science is saying in terms of lifestyle and cancer risk. We know that overweight and obesity are associated with nine separate cancers, including breast and prostate. We estimate that 81,000 cancer cases per year could be prevented if people ate a healthier diet, kept a healthy weight and were regularly active.

"And it seems that, overall, the public understands this too, although it is of concern that people from poorer backgrounds and ‘millennials’ seem to be less aware.

"But overall awareness in the general population is not translating into better outcomes. Department of Health figures show that around two thirds of people are overweight or obese, only a minority of people get their five-a-day and we still consume too much salt, sugar and fat.

‘What this shows is that it is not enough simply to raise awareness. We also need to find effective ways of bringing about changes to lifestyle. From influencing the healthy food preferences of children to ensuring that those people who are ready to change are given support to do so, for example, by the continued use of traffic light food labelling in shops.

"It is good to know that people seem to be hearing the research message, but it is important we build on that awareness by working towards behaviour change actions that are realistic, achievable and will help reduce the burden of preventable cancers in future."

Cary Adams, Chief Executive Officer, Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), said: "It is not beyond us to prevent thousands of people dying unnecessary from cancer each year in the UK. Every one of us has the power to make healthier life choices for ourselves and our families, but the support and encouragement of communities, healthcare professionals, employers and the UK Government is essential to ensure that awareness translates into action."

Between now and Cancer Prevention Week (11-17 May), World Cancer Research Fund will announce further findings about the links between lifestyle and cancer risk; publish research about the policy response needed to reverse the obesity epidemic; and showcase real-life interventions that could help bridge the gap that exists between “awareness and action.”

ENDS

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Notes to editors:

Figures for Wales:

  • 76% of Welsh people link being overweight with increased cancer risk (compared to 62% in Britain overall), up from 53% since 2010;
  • 75% think there is a link between eating a poor diet and increased cancer risk (compared to 58% in Britain overall) up from 61% since 2010; and
  • 64% list physical inactivity with an increased cancer risk (49% in Britain overall), up from 37% in 2010

Figures for Scotland:

  • 65% of Scots link being overweight with increased cancer risk (compared to 62% in Britain overall), up from 52% since 2010;
  • 67% think there is a link between eating a poor diet and increased cancer risk (compared to 58% in Britain overall) up from 65% since 2010; and
  • 55% list physical inactivity with an increased cancer risk (49% in Britain overall), up from 41% in 2010

Figures for social groups:

  • 66% of ABC1s list being overweight as increasing the risk of cancer;
  • 57% of C2DEs list being overweight as increasing the risk of cancer.
  • 62% of ABC1s list eating a poor diet as increasing the risk of cancer;
  • 53% of C2DEs list eating a poor diet as increasing the risk of cancer.
  • 54% of ABC1s list not being physically active as increasing the cancer risk;
  • 44% of C2DEs list not being physically active as increasing the cancer risk.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size in 2015 was 2,240 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 19th - 20th January 2015.  Total sample size in 2012 was 2,012 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th - 15th October 2012. Total sample size in 2010 was 2,130 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25th - 27th August 2010. The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).