Cancer Research UK advert designed to look like a pack of cigarettes criticised by mental health professionals, body positive campaigners
The new campaign from Cancer Research features an oversized, fake packet of cigarettes that reads “Obesity is a cause of cancer too” which the charity says is meant to warn people of the dangers of obesity.
The advert is part of a broader campaign featuring new data that show people who are obese now outnumber people who smoke two to one in the UK. The charity campaign says that excess weight causes more cases of certain cancers than smoking, and urges the Government action to tackle obesity.
Almost a third of UK adults are obese and, while smoking is still the nation’s biggest preventable cause of cancer and carries a much higher risk of the disease than obesity, Cancer Research UK’s analysis revealed that being overweight or obese trumps smoking as the leading cause of four different types of cancer.
The data show that excess weight causes around 1,900 more cases of bowel cancer than smoking in the UK each year. The same is true of cancer in the kidneys (1,400 more cases caused by excess weight than by smoking each year in the UK), ovaries (460) and liver (180).
Campaigners emphasised that they are comparing smoking and obesity to show how policy change can help people form healthier habits, not to compare tobacco with food. The campaign, with adverts spotted on billboards and at railway stations, is being criticised by body positivity influencers, eating disorder campaigners, mental health professions and others for missing the mark and for increasing the stigma on weight and fat shaming.
Hope Virgo, who is campaigning for the Government to review eating disorder guidelines linked to BMI said, “Eating disorders are really serious mental illnesses, and whilst research shows that obesity is linked to cancer, there is a way to go about doing it. We spend our lives plastered with content of ‘skinny’ people and letting calories dictate what we are doing - this in itself is unhealthy. Yes, obesity is an issue but there is a way to go around talking about it and tackling it.”
Hope told Happiful the way the topic is currently covered by the media is also problematic and can distort people’s viewpoints and can shame those who may be really struggling.
“Yes, we have an obesity crisis, but we also have a mental health crisis - and both need to be tackled sensitively. By using stock messaging and pictures, this fuels the negative ways people think about each other, but also distorts views in life. These campaigns can be triggering for so many people, not only the images but the messaging used.”
Another criticism of the campaign is that the messaging used to shame people into getting healthy is faulty in and of itself. We asked counsellor Beverley Hills to explain the psychology behind using shame and fear to prompt people to change.
“When companies prey on the stigma of shame and fear, the damage they could do to a possibly already fractured psyche may well have untold repercussions. It’s a form of crowd control, a condition of worth: ‘you are not worthy of validation unless you do such and such’ and a method that has been employed by perceived figures of authority for centuries.
“Shame leads to blame - often people blame themselves for their illness, or addiction, and do not see themselves as worthy of the help they need and so it is a very dangerous, ill-considered tactic indeed. It also doesn’t work, not in the long term, because when people do get proper support they can see it for what it is: exploitative rhetoric designed to manipulate. Shame-based campaigns ought to include information about where to go for help.”
Nutritional Therapist and Nutritionist Resource member Sonal Shah said that while being overweight or obese can increase health risks for many conditions, it doesn’t mean people should be shamed for being unhealthy.
“Weight is just a number and not an accurate picture of overall health. We do know that cancer is a multifactorial disease; therefore, many factors play a role.” Sonal says if you are overweight and worried about your health then it’s not too late to start to get back on track to make healthy steps - even small swaps to your diet can help. “You don’t have to be on a restricted calorie diet, just making small swaps to your snacks and cutting back on processed foods, sugar and alcohol can help.”
Additionally Sonal said, taking up a health-promoting activity you enjoy such as joining a tennis, badminton or squash club, aerobics or dance class can help increase your fitness and your mood.
“If you find that your eating habits are letting you down, speak to a therapist who can help you create a better relationship with food.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said that smoking rates have fallen while obesity rates have risen, which show the impact Government policies have on national health crises. “Our children could be a smoke-free generation, but we’ve hit a devastating record high for childhood obesity, and now we need urgent Government intervention to end the epidemic. They still have a chance to save lives. Scientists have so far identified that obesity causes 13 types of cancer but the mechanisms aren’t fully understood. So further research is needed to find out more about the ways extra body fat can lead to cancer.”
The charity wants the Government to act on its ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 and introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts on TV and online, alongside other measures such as restricting promotional offers on unhealthy food and drinks.
Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, commented: “There isn’t a silver bullet to reduce obesity, but the huge fall in smoking over the years – partly thanks to advertising and environmental bans – shows that Government-led change works. It was needed to tackle sky-high smoking rates, and now the same is true for obesity.
The world we live in doesn’t make it easy to be healthy and we need Government action to fix that, but people can also make changes themselves; small things like swapping junk food for healthier options and keeping active can all add up to help reduce cancer risk.”
If you are worried about your relationship with food as it pertains to your mental health, you may benefit from speaking to a professional. Enter your location in the box below to find a counsellor near you.