Fat-shaming or a radical wake-up call? Thoughts on a polemic obesity-cancer link campaign

New figures from the Cancer Research UK Foundation indicate that there are now twice as many overweight people as smokers in the UK. While the number of active smokers is constantly decreasing, the number of overweight people is increasing. A polemic UK campaign on the issue has met considerable backlash.

Obesity surpasses smoking as a cause of four cancers

New figures from the Cancer Research UK Foundation indicate that there are now twice as many overweight people as smokers in the UK. According to studies, obesity causes 1,900 cases of colon cancer annually more in the UK than are caused by smoking. There are 1,400 more cases of kidney cancer, 460 more cases of ovarian cancer, and 180 more cases of liver cancer. While the number of active smokers is constantly decreasing, the number of overweight people is increasing.

In the context of these figures' release, Cancer Research UK launched a nationwide media campaign showing cigarette packs with the warning "Obesity causes cancer too". On the lower part of the box there is a note saying "Like smoking, obesity puts millions of adults at greater risk of cancer".

However, intended as a shaker to show how effective (in the case of tobacco advertising) government policies can be in influencing consumer behavior and to raise general awareness of the risks of obesity, the campaign met with harsh criticism, including accusations of destroying years of work on anti-fat shaming. The outcry was particularly strong in social networks.

Dealing with fear and shame

Twitter reactions ranged. They included those with fears that people with an increased BMI could soon be denied access to cancer therapy, accusations of additional stigmatization without a simultaneous offer for help, to the creation of additional feelings of guilt, and the perception that overweight people would now be held responsible for their cancer.

This campaign burst into an emotionally charged wasp nest because it operates with people's fears and shame. In a rather polemic line of argumentation, the accountability for one's own health seems to have been transferred to the private sphere - even if this was not the intention, according to Cancer Research UK. The campaign, critics argue, promote the idea that you had a choice between health and illness, depending on the lifestyle you choose.

Predispositions, social and cultural backgrounds, personal circumstances and the fact that eating, unlike smoking, cannot be stopped because the body needs food are ignored. Instead, obesity operates in the social psyche as still associated with weakness of will, lack of discipline and neglect of care for one's own body.

They who smoke, do not need sensibility

On the other hand, it seems justified to conduct anti-smoking campaigns even more aggressively. They operate with explicit images of amputations or tumors, with death threats and feelings of guilt towards relatives and friends. Here the end obviously justifies the means - those who still smoke despite knowledge of its dangers must not be sensitive and must accept social ostracism. There is no outcry within society, nor are there any expressions of solidarity. Although nicotine addiction and the difficulties of quitting are well known, there is a lack of help structures. The strategy is called deterrence - and it is effective, as the figures show.

So why is a similar procedure in the case of obesity being pushed into a moral compartment? Why is it obviously justified to expose smokers to massive social pressure, but not overweight people? Is it because more people fear that at some point they will also belong to the circle of "fat people"? Because smoking is a free choice, but eating is not?

These questions may need to be addressed in order to understand the complex mechanisms that are underway in the protest against the Cancer Research UK campaign. It should also be kept in mind that the media campaign is only one part of a much larger action designed primarily to protect children and young people from the consequences of obesity by, for example, banning television advertising for fast food and sweets before nine o'clock in the evening.

The accusation that the foundation does not offer any help can, in any case, be refuted. A look at Cancer Research UK's website shows that numerous freely available publications provide both patients and doctors and other health care stakeholders with tools to explain the links between obesity and cancer. Here you will find numerous tips on how to achieve a healthy weight as well as suggestions on how to sensitively address the subject of weight in the doctor's office or pharmacy and how to create awareness. The focus here is clearly on the consideration of the psychosocial framework conditions and the effort to find individual, productive solutions.