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Better diet, exercise could prevent 43,000 cancers and save $674 million

Governments “must act now” to avert tens of thousands of cancer cases - and millions in medical bills - with policies that…

With better diet and exercise, thousands of Australians could avoid cancer. AAP/Tracey Nearmy
Governments “must act now” to avert tens of thousands of cancer cases - and millions in medical bills - with policies that will improve diet and exercise among Australians, researchers say.

Scientists from the Viertel Centre for Research in Cancer Control, at Cancer Council Queensland, estimate that a quarter of all cancer cases could be prevented if Australians adopted healthier lifestyles.

Using trends in population growth and aging, they forecast that incidence of cancer will rise to about 170,000 in the next 13 years, which is a 60% increase from 2007. Previous research has found that 25% of cancers can be avoided through changes to diet and exercise - or about 43,000 cases by 2025.

This would equate to savings in medical costs of $674 million in that year alone, based on 2000-2001 treatment costs, and ignoring inflation, the researchers said.

Their findings are published in today’s issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Associate Professor Peter Baade, the Manager of the Descriptive Epidemiology Research Program at the Viertel Centre for Research in Cancer Control, said that changes to diet and activity would have the greatest impact on bowel cancer, averting an estimated 10,049 cases, and could also prevent 7,273 cases of female breast cancer.

“Latest trend estimates suggest that more of the Australian population is sedentary than ever before, with percentages increasing from 31.5% in 2001 to 35.2% in 2007-08. Similarly, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in adults aged 18 years and over increased from 56.3% in 1995 to 61.4% in 2007-08,” the authors wrote in their paper. They also said that only 8.8% of Australians ate the recommended amount of vegetables - five serves per day.

The figures provided governments with the evidence they needed to act, they said.

“Just over 2% of Australia’s total health expenditure in 2007-08 was spent on preventive services or health promotion. When compared with the costs of treatment, prevention efforts in the area of nutrition and physical activity can be a very cost-effective investment for governments.”

Governments “at all levels must act now, and act vigorously, in order to reduce the significant human and financial burden of cancer in the future”.

In 2010, cancer accounted for about 19% of Australia’s disease burden, as measured by financial cost, mortality and a range of other factors. Australians pay about $3.8 billion per year in direct health system costs.

Tim Crowe, an Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University, said that cancer was a “big killer of Australians, yet it has a very large preventable component. The lifestyle estimates used in this paper come from the largest ever report into the role of nutrition and physical activity in the prevention of cancer and represent the best quality, most credible and up-to-date source of information available.

“Staying physically active, eating plenty of unprocessed foods high in fibre, drinking alcohol within current guidelines, cutting back on red meat (especially processed meat), and keeping body weight in check, can each dramatically cut a person’s risk of being diagnosed with cancer – especially the most common cancers in Australians of colorectal and breast cancer.

“All of these factors are in an individual’s personal ability to control with any support the government can provide in achieving this goals to be welcomed.”

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The researchers argue:
    (1) diet and exercise contribute to lower rates of cancer
    (2) governments 'must act now' to change people's behaviours

    There seems to be evidence for the first. But where is the evidence government intervention will have the effect the researchers hope for - preventing 43,000 deaths and so on?

    The nature, appropriateness and effectiveness of government intervention is a critical issue in public health policy, yet it seems to be skated over here. I'd suggest we need to respond to assertions that 'governments must act now' with some skepticism and rigour.

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  2. Andrew Pengilley

    Doctor

    If we take the fairly strong evidence that the private sector and individuals have not acted, and indeed have acted to create the problem, I would think the case for some form of government action is fairly clear even if its to get the former two groups to do something themselves. Otherwise its pretty much down to divine intervention.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Andrew Pengilley

      Peter, I don't think it follows to say, 'X (individual action) hasn't worked, therefore Y (government action) will work'.

      There's also a false premise here - the idea that governments haven't acted. They clearly have. We've all heard the messages about healthy eating and exercise. Smokers and drinkers pay high taxes. Fresh food is GST-exempt. So you could make a case that government intervention often doesn't work.

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  3. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    43,000 cancers is a vast ocean of suffering. Compare with the Fukushima nuclear
    failure ... zero cancers now, and the best estimate is zero in the future but the Government of Japan is running scared and acting to protect the people from the vacuous risk whipped up by the anti-nuclear movement. Clearly they know a thing or two about getting action that the medical community doesn't.

    Why doesn't the Cancer Council run red meat scare campaigns? Currently MLA can lie with impunity about their product…

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  4. Michele Jean

    Literary Agent

    I haven't thoroughly read the research from the Queensland Cancer Council Website.... What I see is that the real problem is inequality. Obesity, Cancer, Mental Health, Heart Problems all can be linked to Inequalities within society. All the government programs to educate about the importance of eating the right foods and exercising will not help mothers and fathers buy food they can't afford. It is a problem. The solution could be debated for years. Great comments.

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  5. John Wright

    Director

    Tim Crowe's advice is completely perfectly logical - eat well, exercise some and adopt some good risk reduction strategies, the kind of advice your Nan might give. Why does this need government intervention? Personal responsibility it seems is no longer required, just pay your taxes (or not) and blame the government when you develop cancer/heart disease etc!

    Then of course there is the whole question of whether government advice is good advice........

    Better to target the scarse resources for those who genuinely need government assistance than a nanny state for all.

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    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to John Wright

      It needs Government intervention for exactly the same reasons that smoking reductions have needed Government intervention. The meat industry tells exactly the same kinds of lies that the tobacco industry told about the relation between red meat and cancer just being an "association". Just before the CSIRO launched the second edition of its Total Wellbeing Diet its board was told by its own researchers that high red meat diets will increase cancer rates, but they went ahead anyway. CSIRO has researchers actively nailing down the intimate details of the causal pathways by which red meat causes cancer while telling people to eat it. How else do you fight this kind of duplicity and mendacity?

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    2. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to John Wright

      Wouldn't you argue, then, in the face of such lies, that Governments should act?

      Tell me, how is your power to choose to reject the meat and tobacco industries, equla or comparable to that of Governments?

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    3. Clifford Chapman

      Retired English Teacher

      In reply to John Wright

      Personally, John Wright, I wouldn't mind Governments banning tobacco and cigarette manufacture, what you'd probably call living in a nany state. It's a novel way of looking at it, alright, so on such logic, I should have allowed my children the choice to smoke when they were toddlers because they were available and many a Nan in those 'enlightened' times would have lit up a fag for their grandchildren. Oh for the good old days of Capstan Full Strength.

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  6. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    I'm a little preturbed at the flak red meat cops for being food. The cancer links are often confounded and very often overstated. The real issue is addressing obesity, vegetable and fruit intake, and physical activity.

    Most foods have carcinogins in them (10mg in every cup of coffee), so talking about one part of the diet is rather lame. Especially the part of the diet that is linked with higher nutrition and affluence levels that ultimately leads to longer lives that are more likely to incur…

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    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Thanks Tim. The UK data is instructive ... they eat 56 kg of red meat annually compared to 81kg in Australia (FAO data) and they
      have an age standardised bowel cancer rate of 31 compared to 38 in Australia ... i.e., they eat 70 percent as much red meat and have 80 percent of the bowel cancer (Globocan 2008 stats) ... QED.

      Of course my concern for animals, biodiversity and climate change gives me a vegan agenda, NASA climate scientist James Hansen has said that the second most useful thing individuals…

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Correlation is not causation Geoff. This is my entire point.

      Also it is relevant to raise the agendas of those who are pushing the arguement for vege diets. The inherent biases mean that data is taken out of context or cherry picked. You've done it yourself with the restatement of the stats I posted (you haven't accounted for any of the differences in data sets, nor any of the normatives).

      You are also quoting James Hansen. What you fail to quote is the largest emissions that are easily changed…

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    3. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      The World Cancer Research Fund's 2007 report had 150+ authors who understood that correlation isn't causation and they were absolutely clear "red and processed meat cause bowel cancer".

      Good luck with efficiency and energy savings ... since 1990 we have had huge increases in efficiency but over 40% increase in energy use. As computer screens got cheaper and more efficient ... many of my colleagues got two and then three! Ditto housing.

      The easy transformation is food. All you have to do…

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    4. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      There is a logical flaw. If you read my article you would have seen that I covered the major points that mean there is not enough land to grow crops that would replace meat. Can't be done. So either you want people to starve or you have some magic trick up your sleeve.

      The quote you have from the WHO is not in the main summary, it is a minor part and it wasn't stating causation but rather it was associated with a higher risk (an order of 10% for red meat 12-15% for processed meat, from memory…

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