New research shows that public awareness of the risks of obesity and its links with cancer continues to be low, according to a study published in the Journal of Public Health.

In an online survey of 3,293 adults, just 25.4 percent listed cancer as a health condition that could result from being overweight or obese.

When prompted with a list of potential health conditions that being significantly overweight might cause, 57.5 percent selected cancer. Arthritis came bottom of the list (50 percent) and diabetes at the top (93.6 percent).

Also, the research found that for cancer types known to be associated with overweight and obesity awareness was “wide-ranging”, with responses spanning 21.5 percent for womb cancer to 60.1 percent for bowel cancer.

Models for unprompted cancer awareness also showed that respondents with a higher socio-economic status (SES) were more likely to be aware of the links between overweight and cancer than those from the lowest SES groups, the researchers note.

The findings clearly indicate that public health messages warning of the dangers of obesity are not getting through, which is a significant problem given that 63 percent of the English and 67 percent of the Scottish adult population are overweight or obese, and awareness of the risks “is considered important as it has an influence on behavioural intentions,” according to the study.

It is thought that these conditions caused 3.4 million deaths and 4 percent of years of life lost worldwide in 2010, and obesity is known to be associated with thirteen types of cancer. In the UK, 18,100 cancer cases are attributable to obesity, and a recent study predicted that if current overweight and obesity trends continue in the country there could be an additional 670,000 cancer cases by 2035, the authors stress.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said family doctors are “working hard to ensure patients are aware of how their lifestyle might be affecting their health and wellbeing – including how making often-simple lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay serious conditions, such as cancer,” but that it is “just one of a growing number of complex and potentially sensitive issues that we are expected to discuss with our patients, all within the constraints of a standard ten-minute appointment, and it simply isn't long enough.”

“We would love to spend longer with our patients so that we could have in-depth conversations with them about all the physical, psychological and social factors affecting their health. But offering longer appointments means offering fewer appointments, and currently the College estimates that patients will already be waiting a week or more for an appointment with a GP or practice nurse on 100 million occasions by 2020.”

The study was supported by funding from Cancer Research UK.