Bacon, Cigarettes, and Cancer: An Example of Misleading Headlines

Bacon: As Big a Threat as Cigarettes for Cancer Risk”

Damning New Report from World Health Organization”

Shock Waves Sent Through Food and Farming Industries”

In October of 2015, the World Health Organization released a report that bacon and processed meats (think sausages, hot dogs, and, yes, bratwurst) are being classified as “Class 1 Carcinogens”, essentially confirming that there is a definitive link between consumption of these foods and an increased risk of cancer. This was a determination based on an accumulation of data from good research.

Media outlets quickly jumped on this information and began equating consumption of these meats with the risks of several other items on the list, particularly smoking cigarettes. Recent Netflix documentary What the Health portrayed the information in a similar manner, without providing proper context.

While these headlines undoubtedly garnered a great deal of attention from the public, they are misleading and don’t accurately reflect the important differences between the consumption of processed meats, like bacon, and smoking cigarettes.

Regular consumption of processed meats does increase an individual’s risk of bowel cancer. The average person has about a 4.5% risk of developing this type of cancer. Research has found that eating 2-4 ounces of processed meats daily increases this risk by 16-18%. Once you do the math, you find that increasing 4.5% by a factor of .16 (16%), gives you a new risk level of about 5.3%.

So, in summation, a daily portion of 2-4 slices of bacon increases your risk of bowel cancers from 4.5% to about 5.3%. That’s a statistically significant amount, but a far cry from the impact of cigarettes.

Smoking 1-4 cigarettes per day increases your lung cancer risk by about 300%. Smoking a whole pack daily? A 2300% increase (an average of the CDC’s range of 1500-3000%). In other words, about 135 times more impactful than the increased risk from processed meat consumption. Perhaps this is because there are over 70 unique ingredients in cigarettes linked with cancer.

For further context, the Global Burden of Disease Project found that about 34,000 cancer deaths per year are attributable to processed meat consumption. Cigarettes were found responsible for over one million deaths annually. And, without statistics to back this up, my guess is that more people are eating bacon than smoking – yet the impact is 30 times lower.

Also, none of these numbers account for cigarettes’ impact on increased cancer risk in the pancreas, kidneys, and bladder.

I am not trying to make the case that bacon is good for you. It’s not a particularly nutritious food, and it is linked with a slight increase in bowel cancer risk. But hopefully the above information helps you to understand that, when it comes to cancer risk, it’s not in the same ballpark as cigarettes. Keep in mind that simply eating less processed meat, even if it’s not totally eliminated, can reduce your risks for bowel cancers. As for cigarettes…without dropping the habit altogether, your risks will remain very high.