Obesity Tops Smoking As Main Cause Of Cancers

Paul Harter Paul Harter
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This was a recent headline, page one, The Times of London. By the time scientific research makes it into the mainstream press, it is often dumbed down and sensationalised. “Meat Causes Cancer”. “Red Wine is Good For You”. Well, yes and no, but mostly no. Those are subjects for another day.


Today, let’s explore obesity and smoking as causes of cancer.

Before doing so, I congratulate The Times for putting this headline on the front page. Yes, obesity is a principal cause of many cancers. Let’s keep telling people that and let’s give them the ways and means to lose body fat and maintain a healthy weight. Not only will they greatly reduce cancer risk, but they will also greatly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (and resulting strokes and heart attacks); they will prevent type II diabetes and other debilitating diseases and conditions; they will live longer and lead happier more active lives.


There are several ways to read the headline in The Times:

• An obese person is more likely to get cancer than a smoker.
• A smoker previously got cancer more than an obese person, but now the tables have turned.
• Both obesity and smoking cause cancer, but there are far more obese people than smokers.

As it happens, the third version is the truth. The Times is not reporting new science. We have known for a long time that obesity causes many cancers. So, what has happened? Smoking rates in the UK have declined dramatically, while the obesity epidemic continues in full swing.


According to The Times, in the adult population of the UK:


Number of Smokers

Number of Obese People


14 million (27%)

8 million (15%)


6 million (14%)

15 million (29%)


In 1990, a packet of cigarettes cost £1.65. Today, a packet costs £10.40. Adjusted for inflation, the price of cigarettes jumped from £3.60 to £10.40 in just under 30 years. Add to that intervening bans on indoor smoking and advertising, and the outcome makes sense.

In 1990, the UK high street price of a Big Mac (in today’s money) was approximately £3.00. The price today, £2.69.*

So, while government intervention and public awareness together resulted in the dramatic decrease in smoking rates, the proliferation of cheap, highly calorific, palatable processed food has (until recently) continued unabated. In 2018, the UK introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, placing a tax of 18 to 24p on a litre of sugary soft drinks. Taxing the perceived causes of obesity is today in its infancy. It is a contentious issue in national politics. We applaud the fact that the debate is taking place.

Obesity is a complex disease. It’s causes are multifaceted - physiological, psychological and cultural. Our species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a world of food scarcity and our body is programmed to eat when it can. Fifty years of food abundance cannot change that. In fact, as our body gets fatter, it regulates itself to stay fatter, making weight loss for obese people far more difficult than weight loss for the merely overweight. For those interested in the history and science of obesity, we recommend Dr. Stephan Guyenet’s “The Hungry Brain”.

To date, no medical intervention cures obesity, other than expensive bariatric surgery (gastric bands, bypasses and gastrectomies). Efforts to find effective medicine to regulate hunger and eating have, at least for the most part, failed so far.

There is some good news. With extremely rare exception, no human is unable to reverse obesity. But the diet industry continues to sell diets that, for the vast majority of people, do not result in sustained weight loss. The food industry continues to peddle highly calorific, palatable, cheap processed foods that are far less satiating than the real thing.

The solution in our judgment? Sensible coaching by experienced nutritionists and dieticians with a proven track record of effectively changing people’s habits of a lifetime. Ours is a far cheaper and less traumatic solution than bariatric surgery.


*  In fairness to MacDonald’s, in our judgment, the Big Mac is far from the worst offender on the high street, and in moderation, can even be part of a healthy diet.

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