World Cancer Day: Commercial Interests May Drive Millions of Avoidable Cancer Deaths

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The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC)—in light of World Cancer Day, taking place on February 4—has called on governments around the world to prioritize policy actions to reduce preventable cancers caused by tobacco use and the consumption of alcohol and ultraprocessed foods, including sugary beverages.


Nearly half of all global cancer deaths (4.45 million of 9 million deaths in 2019) are caused by known modifiable risk factors, with smoking, alcohol consumption, and high body mass index among the top three.

Sugary drinks and ultraprocessed foods are known drivers of obesity (defined as a body mass index above 30) and are potentially addictive. These products are marketed by companies whose corporate interests often outweigh concerns for global health.

“Millions of avoidable cancer deaths are caused by unhealthy products sold by companies who interfere in policy debates and misuse science to secure a favorable commercial environment. As we celebrate World Cancer Day, [the] UICC stands ready to support governments in their efforts to limit people’s exposure to tobacco, alcohol, and ultraprocessed food products,” emphasized Cary Adams, BSc, PhD, Chief Executive Officer of the UICC.

The aggressive marketing of unhealthy products has also been shown to increase the differences in the number and severity of cancer cases and cancer mortality around the world—both within countries and between high- and lower-income regions. Vulnerable populations may be especially more susceptible to experience higher cancer incidences and lower survival rates.

New UICC Policy Recommendations

Given that the global cancer burden has been growing—particularly in low- and middle-income countries—the UICC has requested that governments strengthen and implement policies that severely restrict the ability of companies to market and sell known carcinogenic products.

In particular, the UICC recommended four policy actions that have proven effective in reducing the availability and consumption of unhealthy products:

  • Increase taxation to discourage the intake of carcinogenic products. Recent studies in the United States have demonstrated that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes may reduce adult consumption by 3% to 5% and youth consumption to by up to 15%.
  • Enforce marketing limitations, including age restrictions and reduced points of sale. A government analysis in the United Kingdom showed that banning advertising for ultraprocessed foods on television before 9:00 PM would potentially result in £1.9 billion in public health benefits—with reductions in childhood obesity–related health complications throughout individuals’ lifetimes.
  • Improve labeling by imposing product warnings and more thorough information labels.
  • Run extensive public education campaigns to improve the public’s knowledge of risk factors and further counter misleading advertising, market promotion, and policy interference.

Overcoming Hurdles to Carcinogenic Product Regulations and Next Steps

“Many governments know that their populations are targeted by companies eager to sell unhealthy products, but their ambitions to curtail these actions are often met with resistance from industry actors—including legal challenges to effective policy measures and legislation. Opposition to a sugar tax by manufacturers of sugary drinks, stealing a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, is just one example among many,” explained Ulrike Årehed Kågström, President-Elect of the UICC and Secretary General of the Swedish Cancer Society

“Australia was one of the first countries to ban tobacco advertising and the first to impose plain packaging for cigarettes. These policies have led to less brand identification, lower acceptance of smoking, better perception of health risks, reduced uptake among youth, and more adults quitting. Similar policies for alcohol and ultraprocessed foods, aligned with the particular risks of these products, will help blunt the unscrupulous marketing strategies of some companies who target youths and other vulnerable populations with their unhealthy products,” concluded Jeff Dunn, AO, Professor of Social and Behavioral Science as well as Chair of Cancer Survivorship at the University of Southern Queensland, and President of the UICC.

For more information about World Cancer Day, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.