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Around one third of cancers in Australia are caused by modifiable risk factors.

In this section, we explore the evidence on cancer risk factors and provide policy recommendations aimed at reducing their impact on Australia's cancer burden.

This information is designed for policy-makers, journalists and anyone with an interest in public policy on cancer prevention.



One in three cancers is preventable

Cancer Council Australia has published the first ever comprehensive estimate of cancer incidence in Australia by modifiable risk factors – that is, the number of annual cancer cases attributable to known risk factors that can be controlled.

Published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in October 2015, the study estimated that, in 2010 a total of 32% of all cancers diagnosed in Australia (37,000 of 117,000) were attributable to 13 factors.

Of those 13 risk factors, smoking, UV radiation, body weight, poor diet and alcohol were attributable for around 90% of preventable cancers.

The full series of articles, plus a summary and conclusions, are accessible free of charge.

For recommendations on cancer prevention in a public policy context, please view our National Cancer Prevention Policy.



Reducing personal risk

Tobacco control

Tobacco smoking causes 20% of cancer deaths in Australia, making it the highest individual cancer risk factor. Smoking is a known cause of 16 different cancer types and is the main cause of Australia's deadliest cancer, lung cancer.

Smoking is responsible for 88% of lung cancer deaths in men and 75% of lung cancer cases in women in Australia. (For context on lung cancers not caused by smoking, read this commentary from our former CEO, Professor Ian Olver.)

The tobacco control chapter of our National Cancer Prevention Policy provides detailed information on the impact of tobacco on cancer in Australia, and outlines effective interventions and policy priorities aimed at reducing the cancer burden associated with tobacco.

For national policy recommendations on a range of individual tobacco control issues, see our suite of smoking and tobacco control position statements.

Tobacco in Australia:  facts and issues, produced by Cancer Council Victoria, is a comprehensive source of tobacco control information.

Source:

  • The Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Obesity, physical inactivity and nutrition

In 2003, 4% of all cancer deaths in Australia were attributed to a combination of physical inactivity, high body mass and inadequate vegetable and fruit consumption. Overlaps in these risk factors make it difficult to separate and quantify their individual impact on cancer.

The 2003 Australia data may also understate the cancer impact of these risk factors, as local estimates are conservative compared with a number of larger international studies. For example, in 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of all cancers in high income countries were linked to overweight and obesity, poor nutrition and physical inactivity.

The overweight and obesity, physical inactivity and nutrition chapter of the National Cancer Prevention Policy contains detailed information on reducing the burden of cancer in Australia relating to these factors. The chapter contains specific policy recommendations and an overview of the evidence to support them.

Detailed information is also available on a number of specific foods and nutrients in a wide range of Cancer Council Australia position statements.

Sources:

  • The Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  • World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research.
  • Policy and action for cancer prevention. Food, nutrition, and physical activity: a global perspective, 2009.

Alcohol

Cancer Council Australia estimates that  4.5% of cancer cases are attributable to long-term, chronic use of alcohol each year in Australia based on 2015 data.

Alcohol consumption causes cancers of the breast, mouth, pharynx and larynx, oesophagus, liver and bowel (in men) and probably increases the risk of bowel cancer (in women).

The more alcohol consumed over a lifetime, the greater the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers. Therefore, moderating alcohol consumption, particularly over the long term, is an important objective for reducing Australia's cancer burden.

The alcohol and cancer chapter of our National Cancer Prevention Policy contains detailed information on reducing the burden of alcohol-related cancer in Australia. The chapter contains specific policy recommendations and an overview of the evidence to support them.

For more detailed information on a range of policy issues concerning alcohol and cancer, see our suite of alcohol position statements.

Ultraviolet radiation

Australia has one of the world’s highest skin cancer rates, with over 2000 people dying each year (melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer combined) – more than the national road toll.

In addition, the cost to the health system is enormous, at over $300 million annually. Yet most skin cancers could be preventable through appropriate protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Evidence-based policy recommendations on how to reduce Australia's skin cancer burden is contained in the UV chapter of our National Cancer Prevention Policy, with supporting information in a suite of specific position statements.

Sources:

  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2005. Health system expenditures on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia, 2000-2001. Canberra: AIHW.

Occupational exposures

There is a growing evidence base linking exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in the workplace to a number of cancers types, particularly cancers of the skin, lung and bladder. Recent research also links laryngeal and sinonasal cancers with exposure to occupational carcinogens.

Around 3.6 million Australians are exposed to cancer causing agents at work. Occupational exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cause over 5000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year. The potential to prevent occupational cancers through improved workplace regulation is therefore an increasingly important public health policy issue in Australia.

The occupational cancers chapter of our National Cancer Prevention Policy provides a detailed analysis of the latest evidence, the policy context and recommendations for reducing the impact of occupational cancers in Australia. 

Sources:

  • Occupational cancer in Australia. 2006.
  • Australian Safety and Compensation Council, Commonwealth of Australia.

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