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Vital Stories

5 Actions Governments Can Take to Fight Cancer

Most cancers are preventable, and governments play the key role in ensuring that people are protected from known risk factors and in promoting healthy environments and behaviors. This World Cancer Day, we’re bringing attention to concrete steps that governments can take to prevent avoidable cases of this deadly disease—and to champion efforts that are already paving the way.

1. Raise Taxes on Tobacco Products

More than one in five cancer deaths are related to tobacco use, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The single most effective way to reduce tobacco use is for governments to increase taxes on tobacco products to make them less affordable. Tobacco taxes are a win/win for governments, generating health gains by encouraging smokers to quit and helping prevent youth from starting, and generating revenue that can be used to fund public health initiatives. To maximize health gains, these taxes should be taken up with additional measures such as banning smoking in public spaces and banning tobacco advertising. Governments should act quickly to meet their commitments to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and raise taxes to the recommended levels. There are promising signs of movement, such as the recent Vietnam Tobacco Control Fund–Ministry of Health campaign to increase tobacco taxes. This is an important step in a country where more than one out of four men will die of a tobacco-related disease, including cancer.

2. Require Warning Labels on the Front of Food Packaging

When consumers have clear information about high amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fat in foods and beverages, they are empowered to make healthy choices. Requiring a warning label system on the front of food packaging is a simple measure that governments can adopt to prevent obesity, another risk factor for cancer. Front-of-package labeling systems like this one from Chile can make it easy for consumers to identify harmful products. Similar warning labels were adopted in Peru and Uruguay. In Brazil, where more than half the population is overweight, the government is considering adopting front-of-package food labels that are easily recognizable.

3. Encourage Physical Activity Through Urban Planning

One in four adults worldwide is not active enough, a major risk factor for cancer. Cities can drive healthy behavior by creating efficient, safe street designs that encourage walking and biking.  Within the Partnership for Healthy Cities, a number of urban areas have taken the lead in becoming walkable or bikeable cities, such as Fortaleza, Brazil; Melbourne, Australia; Kyiv, Ukraine; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Santiago, Chile.

4. Increase Taxes on Alcohol Beverages

Scientific evidence suggests that alcohol use is strongly tied to seven types of cancer, including cancers of the head, neck, mouth, esophagus, liver, breast and colon. By raising alcohol taxes on alcoholic beverages, as with tobacco, governments can help curb harmful alcohol use. Regulating how, when and to whom it is available and restricting alcohol-related advertising are additional steps that governments can take to prevent cancer. These strategies are part of SAFER, a new alcohol policy issued by WHO last year. SAFER outlines five high-impact strategies that governments should implement to reduce harmful alcohol use and its impact on health.

5. Enforce Clean Air Policies to Reduce Pollution

Air pollution contributes to lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Policymakers can fight pollution’s impact on health by committing to rigorous air quality surveillance and enforcing policies to reduce pollutants. A variety of resources provide a clear path for progress: WHO’s framework for responding to air pollution’s impact on health is useful for global and national initiatives, and the forthcoming Vital Strategies Urban Innovations Guide can help cities improve their air quality. It’s key to have champions of clean air include public health voices as well as those who care about the environment; last year, Vital Strategies launched Inspire, a coalition that mobilizes clinicians, public health professionals and organizations around the world to advocate for clean air policies.

Short of a cure for cancer, the fastest path toward a world where few die from this disease is government action to protect people from known risk factors. The cancer-fighting strategies above are proven effective, and will work in both high- and low-income settings. This World Cancer Day, Vital Strategies encourages governments to put these actions on their agenda.

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We conduct research and advocate to shape global health priorities and support government action in 73 countries on issues like restricting junk food marketing to kids, improving indoor and outdoor air quality, and promoting smoke-free laws. These are proven protections that will add up to millions of lives saved.