Cancer Research UK ads slammed for fat shaming

Cancer Research UK obesity cigarette packets
(Image credit: Cancer Research UK)

Cancer Research UK's latest campaign is at the centre of an online controversy around fat shaming. The campaign, which sees the word 'obesity' appear on the front of cigarette packets in the place of brand names and health warnings, is one of the more impactful examples of billboard advertising we've seen.

In a blog post, Cancer Research UK explains the thinking behind the divisive ads by revealing that obese people outnumber smokers two to one, and that excess weight causes more cases of certain cancers than smoking. "The campaign compares smoking and obesity to show how policy change can help people form healthier habits, not to compare tobacco with food," the charity says.

But despite Cancer Research UK's reasoning, the campaign has quickly provoked an intense backlash from the public. Web developer Ken Lynch criticised the campaign by describing it as a "new low" in a widely shared post on Twitter.

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This tweet lead to a flurry of back-and-forth replies, where people either voiced their disgust with the campaign or defended it. A common theme running through the responses was that Cancer Research UK was fat shaming obese people.

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This isn't the first time Cancer Research UK has been accused of fat shaming, either. Last year, a similarly hard-hitting campaign from the charity caused offence when it invited people to guess that obesity was the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.

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At the heart of the controversy is the confusion around who Cancer Research UK is targeting. In a tweet, user Ann Coates say that the ads will cause "nothing but harm" for obese people. But the charity insists that it isn't punching down with these billboards. Instead, it wants to use them to go after the government in order to implement a policy change that will halve childhood obesity rates by 2030, and place restrictions on adverts for junk food on TV and online.

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Speaking in the blog post, Cancer Research UK's prevention expert, professor Linda Bauld, added: "There isn't a silver bullet to reduce obesity, but the huge fall in smoking over the years – partly thanks to advertising and environmental bans – shows that Government-led change works. It was needed to tackle sky-high smoking rates, and now the same is true for obesity.

"The world we live in doesn't make it easy to be healthy and we need Government action to fix that, but people can also make changes themselves; small things like swapping junk food for healthier options and keeping active can all add up to help reduce cancer risk."

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Dom Carter

Dom Carter is a freelance writer who specialises in art and design. Formerly a staff writer for Creative Bloq, his work has also appeared on Creative Boom and in the pages of ImagineFX, Computer Arts, 3D World, and .net. He has been a D&AD New Blood judge, and has a particular interest in picture books.