Commentary & Opinion
12:00 pm
Mon February 27, 2012

Blair Horner: A New, Growing Cancer Epidemic

A generation ago, smoking was the number one cancer menace in America.  From the 1930s through the early 1960s, smoking was portrayed as glamorous.  Advertisements even suggested that smoking was healthy.  And those advertisements were everywhere.  For those of you old enough to remember, cigarette companies even sponsored some of the most popular TV shows.

According to government statistics, that advertising blitz worked with nearly half of all adult Americans smoking by the mid-1960s.

That all began to change with the US Surgeon General report in 1964 that identified smoking as a leading cause for lung cancer.  The tobacco companies battled for decades, but through a combination of higher tobacco taxes, smoking bans in public places and medications, that rate has significantly dropped.

While smoking is still the leading cancer killer in America, a new cause of cancer deaths is emerging: the lifestyle of overeating and physical inactivity.

According to recent statistics, approximately one-third of all cancer deaths are attributable to poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight and obesity.  Unfortunately, obesity among school-age children and adolescents has tripled over the past three decades.  Because overweight and obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, efforts to establish healthy body weight patterns must begin at a young age.  

Not maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle not only increases the risk of cancer, but other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes as well.  Being overweight or obese increases the risk of several cancers, including those of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas, and kidney, among others.

Being overweight can increase cancer risk in many ways. One of the main ways is that excess weight causes the body to produce and circulate more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth.  The evidence for this is strong: Each year, more than 572,000 Americans die of cancer; about one-third of these deaths are linked to poor diet, physical inactivity, and carrying too much weight.

There are many reasons for the obesity epidemic, but a key one is the ever-present advertising that blurs the lines between eating healthy and eating junk.  Like the tobacco industry, the food industry uses its political muscle to block efforts to change these advertising claims.

Of course there is a big difference between smoking and eating – you have to eat to survive.  No one has to smoke.

Also, smoking lends itself to policy interventions.  You can ban smoking in public places, it’s hard to ban eating.  So the policy interventions to combat obesity are more complicated.  One step was recently taken last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which issued new standards scheduled to be implemented beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.  These standards consist of several common sense steps that have the potential to make a big impact on the meals students are eating on a daily basis during the school week.

These steps include: imposing calorie limits for all meals, increasing the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables offered at breakfast and lunch, replacing refined grains with whole grains using a phased in approach, allowing only fat-free or low-fat (one percent) milk, and setting stricter limits for saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  School districts that comply with the updated nutrition standards will receive an additional six cents per lunch, beginning in October, to facilitate purchasing and preparing healthier foods.

To reverse the obesity epidemic, it is vitally important that these new nutritional standards become part of a comprehensive nationwide strategy focused on ensuring the health of today’s children.

More can be done, both by federal and state policymakers.  Targeting the food that government makes available to students and ensuring that physical education programs are part of schoolchildren’s lives are two important actions that can be taken right away.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

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