The relationship between obesity and cancer has been well described…and well ignored! Exposure to excess body fat will contribute to increased risk of some of the most common cancers including bowel and breast. Yet, few agencies working in the cancer settings (including the NHS) bring this to the attention of the millions of people who are in contact with healthcare every day. Many think it is a duty of care for people to be given advice on how to “stack the odds” against cancer occurrence (and recurrence) and that we deny people the opportunity to be supported to reduce cancer risk.


Support for obesity reduction isn’t just about giving advice and guidance on diet and physical activity from health professionals. The reality is that “individual choices are highly influenced by the combined effect of retail marketing, price and promotions”. The Scottish Food Leadership report (prepared to guide the National Food and Drink Policy) highlighted that “the influence of Scotland’s well-crafted health education programmes …are competing with media and commercial messages which lead to confusion and poor comprehension of basic messages. This, in turn can lead to inaction.”

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Whilst many advocacy groups acknowledge that marketing of high energy foods and drinks should be restricted to children (e.g. on television) we need to remember that adults too are influenced by bright bargain offers. A focus on childhood obesity may be politically acceptable, but it will have minimal effect on the two thirds of adults who have excess body weight and the many women who experience weight gain throughout adult life and are thus at risk of increasing post–menopausal breast cancer.

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The new Childhood Obesity Action plan for England provides a good example of how to shirk the problem of adult obesity. Yes we will see a soft drinks levy, yes we will see some modest reduction in sugar which may impact a little on adult sugar intake (and calories if fat intake does not increase) but to take no action on promotions and marketing is a major omission.

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In Scotland, we look forward to more action on marketing and promotions across all sectors. The Healthcare Retail Standard for use in NHS settings limits promotions of energy dense foods and drinks. Food Standards Scotland newly published 5 year strategy highlights that adjustments to marketing, promotions (as well as reformulation) is needed in order to minimise consumption of  ‘discretionary’ foods (unnecessary, less healthier foods e.g. crisps, sugary drinks, cakes and pastries) and drinks. In January, the FSS Board recommended a package of measures to Scottish Ministers with proposals including fiscal measures and regulation around food and drink promotions. If the food industry cannot achieve effective change by voluntary means- hope of serious approach at last! Of course if Scotland’s food commission still believes in the effect of retail marketing described in their food leadership report we should also see a strong steer here too.

Clearly time for Scotland to lead the way for obesity reduction… yes please!