Making real change: 4 ways we’ve influenced cancer policy

A photograph of Big Ben at night

From early diagnosis, to access to treatments and cancer prevention, policy and legislation from the Governments across all four UK nations has a huge impact on cancer.

Sometimes, with the fast-changing news headlines, it might feel like cancer is not a priority for governments.

This is where, with your help, our policy team steps in.

We develop evidence-based proposals that energise and influence governments in Westminster, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe and globally on issues important to our scientists and supporters.

We campaign on behalf of, and alongside, our supporters, ambassadors and those affected by cancer because we strongly believe there is more governments and health services can do when it comes to cancer.

But our role in developing cancer policy is not new. In fact, as a charity, we have seen some huge successes that have changed policy and saved lives over the last 20 years.

From restricting sunbed use for under 18s, to banning smoking at work and in public places, here are 4 ways we’ve influenced cancer policy and made real change.

1. Turning the tide on tobacco

Tobacco is the biggest cause of cancer in the world and the biggest driver of difference in life expectancy between richest and poorest in England.

For people who smoke it’s not as simple as avoiding cigarettes because they’re unhealthy and costly. Some people are more likely to try a cigarette than others, and often factors outside of our control can make all the difference.

In England, only the least deprived areas are projected to be smoke free by 2030. Across the UK, smoking rates remain at least twice as high in the most deprived compared with the least deprived groups.

There are lots of things we can do as individuals that could reduce the risk of developing cancer. But, as we have explored in our health inequalities series, making healthy changes is not always easy and can be harder for some people to achieve than others.

That’s why all four Governments have a huge responsibility to protect people who are at higher risk of tobacco-related harm.

But we’ve already made some huge strides in tobacco control which have contributed to declining smoking rates in the UK.

You may remember a time when you would walk into a restaurant or even a train carriage and be greeted with a wall of cigarette smoke. It was estimated that non-smokers exposed to smoke at home or at work increased their lung cancer and heart disease risk by approximately 20-30%.

So, in November 2004, the UK Government published a white paper on public health, proposing to end smoking in workplaces and public places, except for private clubs and pubs that did not serve food.

Over 20,000 of our supporters emailed their MPs and signed a petition asking them to end smoking in all workplaces and enclosed public spaces.

In 2006, smokefree workplaces, commonly referred to as ‘the smoking ban’, became law in Scotland, with Wales, England and Northern Ireland all following suit in 2007.

Since then, along with your help, we’ve lobbied to cover up tobacco displays in shops and remove tobacco vending machines in 2011, and successfully campaigned for plain cigarette packaging, which came into force in 2015.

Next, we want to see the whole of the UK go smokefree.

We have successfully campaigned for England and Scotland to establish a target date of 2030 and 2034 respectively, to go smokefree. Following our work, the Welsh Government has plans to implement their own 2030 smokefree target.

But the inequalities in smoking are projected to persist, with the most deprived groups across the UK achieving smokefree status (5% or lower smoking prevalence) at least 20 years after the least deprived. In order to achieve these smokefree targets, more action is needed to prevent people from starting smoking and help people who smoke to quit.

This week, our Campaigns Ambassadors from across the country will be in Westminster asking politicians to pledge to be a Smokefree MP and support these measures. You can join them by emailing your MP.

How our supporters are key in policy change

Gower Tan, a father of two from Dulwich became a Cancer Research UK supporter and began raising funds for our pioneering research after his father died from lung cancer.

Gower Tan has supported us after his dad died from lung cancer in 2001.

“Over the past 12 years, I’ve become increasingly engaged in supporting CRUK across different capacities – wherever, whenever and however I can add value! This passion began in 2010 when I ran my first London Marathon, fundraising for CRUK. However, my journey started far earlier.

“My dad, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer in 2001 aged just 66. He ran his first ever London Marathon in 1981 and again in 1982. As a kid I loved running, but that came to an abrupt end when I started smoking aged 13. Fast forward to 2009 and turning 40, I’d tried to quit repeatedly for 25 years with limited success. Determined to succeed, I vowed to get fit, run the London Marathon and fundraise for CRUK,” says Gower.

“In November 2009 I quit smoking and completed my first London Marathon in April 2010, smashing my fundraising target. Having sworn never to do anything so crazy again, I have actively supported CRUK ever since.”

Since that first marathon, Gower has since completed over 30 marathon and ultra-marathons, raising over £70,000 for us.

Beyond his enormous fundraising efforts, Gower has supported us in a whole range of ways. As well as marshalling at Race for Life and SHINE events and mentoring first time ‘marathoners’, Gower is also a campaigns ambassador, and has been a vocal supporter on multiple tobacco campaigns. “Bold government action is essential to help people who smoke to stop, protect the next generation and reduce health inequalities.”

2. Childhood obesity campaigns

Almost 1 in 4 (23%) children in England are overweight or obese before they start primary school. By the time they reach year 6, this increases to more than 1 in 3 (35%) (2019/20).

Children who are obese are around 5 times more likely to be obese as adults compared to children who weren’t obese, and adults who are obese are more likely to develop cancer.

We’ve been calling for a 9pm watershed on TV, as well as similar restrictions online, to protect children from exposure to marketing for foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

Our research found that 86% and 84% of teens aged 11-19 in the UK recalled being exposed to junk food ads on social media and tv advertising, respectively.

The more junk food ads on TV young people see, the more they eat – and that could amount to over 500 extra snacks throughout the year.

In 2018, the UK Government announced the second chapter of its childhood obesity plan, with a bold ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030. The plan committed to consult on a potential ban on junk food adverts before 9pm on TV and similar restrictions online.

Thanks to the persistence of CRUK campaigners, together with Obesity Health Alliance partners, the UK government listened; and recently passed legislation to do just that. But we can’t take our foot off the pedal just yet, as the government announced a delay in actually implementing the junk food advertising restrictions.

Across other UK nations, we have kept up the pressure to reduce obesity.

In Wales, we played a key role in the development of the Welsh Government’s first ever obesity strategy, Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales. That has led to a consultation that began last month on restricting price promotions for the unhealthiest food and drink.

In Scotland, our Scale Down Cancer campaign delivered cross-party support for reducing obesity and the Scottish Government are now consulting on price promotion restrictions too.

We will continue to engage Governments across the UK to make sure any suggested measures are implemented effectively and fully.

3. Restricting sunbed use

The link between sunbed use and skin cancer is well proven. The amount of UV exposure over your lifetime is one factor which increases the risk of skin cancer, so it’s important to protect people from using sunbeds from a young age

Back in 2010, we campaigned across the UK for a ban restricting access to sunbeds for under 18s.

Over 1,300 cancer campaigners emailed their MPs. We also had public support from Julie Morgan, former MP for Cardiff North, Sian James MP, Baroness Finlay and Girls Aloud Star Nicola Roberts.

Following the Sunbeds (Regulation) Bill being passed by Parliament, preventing under 18s from using sunbeds in England and Wales, further legislation has restricted and limited sunbed use across the UK.

This legislation will protect future generations from the damage caused by sunbeds.

4. Ensuring early diagnosis for all

Early cancer diagnosis saves lives.

We’ve been campaigning to ensure that Governments in all four UK nations invest in making early diagnosis the norm for everyone.

In 2015, we pushed for the UK Government and NHS England to make sure that 95% of people receive the results of their cancer tests within 4 weeks, as part of our Test Cancer Sooner campaign. This meant the NHS would need increased investment into diagnostic services – endoscopies, scans and other tests to meet the growing demand.

After 24,600 petition signatures were collected calling for an increased investment into early diagnosis, the UK Government confirmed in the Autumn Spending Review that the NHS in England would have up to £300m each year until 2020 to invest into diagnosing cancer earlier.

But there was still work to be done. When COVID-19 struck in 2020, cancer services were hugely disrupted. But even before the pandemic, cancer services were struggling. In fact, in September 2021 it was revealed that almost 55,000 cancer patients in England should have been diagnosed quicker or have started their treatment earlier over the last 6 years.

Our Cancer Won’t Wait campaign, which included input from our campaign ambassadors, called for a targeted long-term investment to train more staff to bring down cancer waiting times, keep up with future demand, and transform cancer services.

The UK Government committed “hundreds of millions of pounds” to NHS workforce training and £2.3 billion for diagnostic kits for England in the Spending Review. Campaigners’ emails and petition signatures were fundamental to securing that all-important funding. We sought similar commitments from the devolved governments to tackle workforce gaps and improve early diagnosis in those nations too.

We won’t stop there

We’ve had some huge policy wins that will have changed the game for cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, but we’re far from finished.

Our policy department will continue to develop evidence-based policy to inform government decisions related to cancer and research that makes a real impact on real people.

When it comes to UK health, we’ll keep advocating for timely government action to bring about wider changes, to ensure that we can cut cancer rates, reduce cancer inequalities and make sure that everyone has access to timely cancer care.

You can join us. Be part of our new Smokefree UK campaign – email your MP today and ask them to take action to end smoking for good.

Lilly

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