The law and cancer

13 July 2012 | Policy

The Law and cancerDr Kate Allen is Executive Director, of Science & Public Affairs. Kate is responsible for the science and policy programmes at World Cancer Research Fund International. She was part of the executive team overseeing the development of the WCRF/AICR second expert report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and the companion policy report, Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention.

Most people think about tobacco if they think about the law and cancer. Certainly the tobacco control community has been very effective in using law as a policy tool. The 2003 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, signed by 168 countries, was the first truly global public health treaty.

Much can be learned from the tobacco experience but work in the area of law and cancer is going to become increasingly important for public health prevention in other areas.

The September 2011 UN Political Declaration on Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) provides a global framework for action on NCDs, including cancer. It recommends that governments adopt strategies and consider the range of tools available, including legislation and regulation in the area of tobacco, food, and alcohol. This is a significant step forward.

There are big challenges ahead. Effective use of the law will be integral in getting to grips with the NCD epidemic.

In the UK, and in other parts of the world, recent government policy has moved away from legislation to favour individual responsibility. Rather than addressing factors such as price and marketing of food, this involves an individual approach based on behaviour change through ‘nudge’ tactics. The use of ‘nudge’ tactics in isolation has been criticised by public health experts because it doesn’t account for the fact that people’s choices are constrained by many external factors.

Nudging alone will not work. Our evidence-based WCRF International Policy Report makes 48 recommendations to policy-makers across different sectors. Not surprisingly – given its central responsibility for protecting public health – government has more recommendations than any other group. The report emphasises that government achieve the recommendations, By means of legislation, pricing, or other regulation, unless there is good, independent evidence that existing voluntary codes have proved effective.

As a relative novice in the whole area of law and cancer control, I was interested to attend a recent meeting on the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer European Collaborating Network. The McCabe Centre, which opened in February 2012,  is a joint initiative of the Cancer Council of Victoria (Australia) and the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). The Centre’s current areas of focus are tobacco, alcohol, obesity and access to pain relief and its overarching aim is to contribute to the effective use of law in cancer control (meaning prevention, treatment, supportive care and research).

The Centre’s expertise spans health, consumer protection, constitutional, trade, intellectual property and drug control laws. The plan is to establish a number of European and American “hubs” which can focus on issues of local relevance and draw on the expertise of the main Centre.

If we’re going to tackle the NCD epidemic, experts from many disciplines will need to work together. The McCabe Centre looks set to play an important role in promoting a multidisciplinary approach to the law and cancer control as well as encouraging sharing of legal expertise within and between countries. There are big challenges ahead. Effective use of the law will be integral in getting to grips with the NCD epidemic.

Dr Kate Allen | 13 July 2012

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