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French cancer expertise will help Europe’s fight against the disease

However, an inconsistent approach to tobacco and alcohol consumption across Europe threatens to hold up progress

La ligue contre le cancer sign

President of France’s league against cancer, Prof Daniel Nizri, thinks the disease must be fought at a European level Pic: sylv1rob1 / Shutterstock

France is well placed to help the EU’s fight against cancer, according to the president of the Ligue contre le cancer.

It was the first country to launch anti-cancer campaigns and has had three 10-year programmes on the issue so far.

Prof Daniel Nizri told The Connexion: “More than 2.7 million Europeans were diagnosed with cancer in 2020, and 1.3 million died. 

“Forty per cent of these cases were avoidable as we know the causes, such as tobacco. If we pool efforts, we will be stronger.”

Cancer is the EU’s second biggest killer, after heart disease, and is set to be the first by 2035. 

A European Commission-led ‘beating cancer plan’ launched a year ago with €4billion funding.

Its aim is for people across the EU to benefit from the best prevention, early detection and innovative care.

Read more: World Cancer Day: France encourages three regular cancer screenings

A pan-European plan for cancer

An implementation roadmap was published in late 2021 showing actions to be taken year by year.

An online ‘knowledge centre’  has also launched to pool information and coordinate action. 

Its long-term aims include setting up national comprehensive cancer centres linked to an EU network in all countries by 2030.

In February the European Parliament said the plan could be “an important step towards a real European Health Union”.

MEPs adopted a report by their own ‘beating cancer’ committee, led by French MEP and oncologist Véronique Trillet-Lenoir. 

Smoking and alcohol abuse must be tackled across Europe

It set out priorities, including tougher action on smoking and alcohol abuse, clearer rules on cross-border access to cancer care, and measures to deal with medicine shortages. 

The report said tobacco was the largest preventable cause of cancer in the EU – 15-20% of cases – and MEPs supported the plan’s aim of a ‘tobacco-free generation’ by 2040. 

President Macron spoke of 2030 when France launched its latest 10-year plan last year. 

Read more: France's 10-year plan aims to cut high number of avoidable cancers

It also said 10% of cancer cases in men  – 3% in women – are due to alcohol and said the  less people drink, the less the risk.

It said a World Health Organisation study found the safest level to be none, and welcomed the plan’s target of 10% less ‘harmful use’ by 2025.

Stark inequalities between European nations

The MEPs also deplored “significant health inequalities” in the EU in prevention terms.

Dr Trillet-Lenoir said: “Your chances of dying from cancer are 25% higher in Romania than in France.

“Inequalities exist between countries and regions.”

Prof Nizri agreed that differences in cancer prevention need to be addressed. 

“It is hard to fight tobacco and alcohol abuse in France alone but if we do it at a European level, it changes everything,” he said. EU countries have different legislation and taxes for tobacco or alcohol, for example, he said.  

“One country’s policies can be countered by those of its neighbour.” For example, 20% of French smokers buy cigarettes in Germany, Spain or Belgium due to lower tax rates.

One of the aims of the plan is a coordinated EU cancer screening scheme for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers. MEPs said this should be extended to other cancers. It also aims at better coordination of research.

Even so, the problem of the power of lobbies to influence legislation remains. 

Call for cancer warning labels on food and drink

Prof Nizri criticised the agro-industry, which uses pesticides, nitrates and other additives. “Produce might come from other countries with different rules,” he said.

He said it would help if food and alcohol carried warnings of cancer risks, like cigarettes.

“This will allow consumers to know the danger.” He said the EU should impose this.

The plan makes sense, according to Thierry Breton, director of the French Cancer Institute (INCa), “because we are facing challenges that go beyond national borders”. If Europeans pool their resources, “it would allow more innovative projects than at present”, he said.

Wine industry says moderation is key

Not everyone is happy with the EU’s plans, however. 

Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, head of the European wine industries committee (CEEV), said: “This is a very wrong way of presenting science, saying any wine consumption is bad for your health when it comes to cancer.

“Of course, when you consume too much, the risks are greater, and we must fight against abusive consumption.”

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