‘Fat shaming’ cancer ad sparks obesity row

Weight for it: More than two billion people are overweight or obese worldwide. © Anomaly

Should Cancer Research pull its latest advertising campaign? The billboards are supposed to raise awareness of the risks of obesity — but critics say they are unfairly targeting fat people.

In the latest campaign video by the charity Cancer Research, people on the streets of Britain are handed a white box in the shape of a cigarette packet. “What is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking?” it asks. They try to guess. Drinking? Sunbeds?

Wrong. When they open the box, it contains chips. The answer is obesity.

The video is part of a new campaign to raise awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. Across the country, white billboards pose the same question with a hangman-style answer: OB_S_ _Y.

The adverts have sparked a furious row on Twitter. Comedian Sofie Hagan slammed them as “damaging and fat shaming”, and called for them to be removed.

In response, Cancer Research said the campaign was “not about fat shaming” but “based on scientific evidence”. It pointed out that only 15% of people are aware of the link between obesity and cancer, and that it has a real duty to inform the public of that fact.

The campaign is partly based on new research, released last week, that millennials are set to become the “fattest generation of Britons” in history.

According to the charity, seven out of ten people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s are on course to be “dangerously overweight” by the time they reach middle age.

This matters, because obesity has been linked to 13 different kinds of cancer. Although scientists do not know exactly what the cause is, they do know that too many fat cells in the body can lead to increased levels of insulin, inflammation and oestrogen. These all make cells divide faster, raising the risk of cancer.

However, some say that the health risks are used as an excuse to discriminate against fat people in the media, at work, and in doctor’s surgeries. Obesity researcher Dr Stuart Flint told the BBC that this stigma makes overweight people less likely to get healthy, and puts them at risk of mental health problems. He said that obesity is “chronic”, and it is wrong to suggest that people can lose weight “very quickly”.

So should the ads be stopped?

Big problems

Yes, say some. They are part of a world which unfairly demonises fat people. Obesity is a complex health and social issue — but it is too often seen as a moral failure; fat people are blamed for being “lazy”. This can lead to all sorts of mental health issues, including dangerous dieting and depression. Cancer Research should know better.

What an overreaction, argue others. The campaign is no different to raising awareness of the risks of smoking, another preventable cause of cancer. In this case, the underlying health issue is more important than whether the posters make people feel uncomfortable. It would be irresponsible to remove them.

You Decide

  1. Should the Cancer Research billboards be removed?
  2. Are fat people unfairly disciminated against?


  1. As a class, take it in turns to write down all of the words that you associate with “fat”. Then discuss: where do these associations come from, and what kind of message do they send to people?
  2. It is your turn to design an advertising campaign about the links between obesity and cancer. This can be a poster or a video.

Some People Say...

“Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring or cruel?”

JK Rowling

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is “stong evidence” linking obesity to cancer, which is supported by the majority of doctors and scientists and based on multiple scienfitic studies. Obesity itself is mainly caused by lifestyle and behavioural factors (such as consuming more calories than are burned off by exercise). However, it can be made worse by biological and environmental factors (such as your genes, or the availability of cheap unhealthy foods).
What do we not know?
Exactly how obesity causes cancer. Some “fat positivity” campaigners point out that there is a correlation between fatness and cancer, but there is not a proven cause. They suggest that the fear of going to the doctor and being judged for your weight, and the doctor’s own prejudices, may also prevent an early diagnosis.

Word Watch

The medical condition of being very overweight. There are many ways of measuring this, including a BMI of 30 or more. (You can work out your BMI by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared.)
Sofie Hagan
A Danish comedian who lives in the UK and is currently writing a book about why it is “okay to be fat”.
According to polls, this figure increased to 22% when a similar ad campaign was run in the West Midlands in 2016.
13 different kinds
Including two of the most common cancers (breast and bowel cancer) and three of the hardest to treat (pancreatic, oesophageal and gallbladder cancer).
A hormone which controls blood sugar levels and helps your body to turn food into energy.
More fat cells in the body cause specialised immune cells to be released, which in turn causes inflammation, which can lead to cancer.
Female sex hormones. After the menopause, these can increase the risk of cancer.
A condition which recurs over time, or lasts for several years.

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