How can governments help people to be healthier?

Bicycle traffic lights in central London

Danielle EdgeDanielle Edge, our former Policy & Public Affairs Manager, explains why policy is important and how it can help prevent cancer. 

Why do we care about policy?

Are you more likely to ride your bike to work if there’s a safe cycle lane you can use? Are you more likely to buy takeout for dinner if there’s no supermarket nearby? Are your kids more likely to want a chocolate bar because they just saw one on TV? The chances are: yes. Although many individual factors such as someone’s knowledge, attitudes and beliefs can have an impact on health choices, a person’s environment also significantly influences their resulting health decisions and can make our communities more – or less – healthy.

Healthy communities are ones where making the healthy choice is the easy choice. Ensuring communities are healthy is important because unhealthy diets and rates of obesity are increasing across the globe. Obesity is linked to several non-communicable diseases (diseases that are not infectious, known as NCDs) and at least 12 different types of cancer. But what is often forgotten is that our environments can be shaped and influenced through policy.

Public policy is the broad area of laws, regulations, guidelines, strategies and action plans that can be implemented on a community, regional, national or international level. Public policies can outline if a community receives funding for cycle lanes, what level different foods should be taxed at, or how foods can be advertised. These policies shape the environment we live in and influence our choices – for good or bad. At World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), we recognise the enormous potential and power of policy to improve the health of the world’s populations so we have a Policy team dedicated to influencing policy at the highest levels across the globe.

How does this prevent cancer?

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and research has shown that 40% of all cancer cases are preventable through a healthy diet, physical activity, not smoking, and having a healthy weight. Rates of obesity are increasing across the globe, and NCDs are now the world’s largest cause of death and disability. COVID-19 has brought this issue further into the spotlight, as those living with overweight or obesity are 46% more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 48% more likely to die due to COVID-19 – making it more important than ever to improve the health of the population.

In the Policy team we use WCRF’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations to influence public policy; with the right policies in place, environments are improved and it becomes easier to make healthy choices and follow our Recommendations. Our work means we are now trusted policy advisers to governments and other official bodies across the world, including the World Health Organisation – who we are in official relations with.

What does the Policy team do?

Computer monitor

Our Policy team work across a wide range of issues, platforms, countries and levels. Our work involves advancing the evidence for policy, influencing our target audiences (such as national governments), collaborating with civil society organisations (these are organisations that are not governmental or private sector), and communicating the work WCRF does globally.

One way we do this is through our policy frameworks and databases, called NOURISHING and MOVING. Policy frameworks are tools policymakers can use to help design, implement and evaluate existing policies. MOVING contains policies that help people be more physically active while NOURISHING collects policies that promote healthy diets.

WCRF Building Momentum reports

Another way we work is through writing publications, for example our policy report series Building Momentum. This series uses lessons learned from governments, policymakers, academics and advocates around the world who have worked to implement evidence-informed policies, to provide readers with technical guidance on how to design and implement robust policies. So far there are three reports in the series, covering sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, front-of-pack labelling, and restricting the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

A healthier environment for all

We know that a person’s risk of cancer increases through an unhealthy diet and not being physically active, the probability of which is influenced by the environment they live in. Policy can change this, through creating environments that encourage living healthy lives and preventing NCDs – including certain cancers. WCRF works hard to advocate for such policies, which can improve the world’s health.