While there is good evidence that both overconsumption of processed meat and smoking cause cancer – smoking is a lot more dangerous.
Some people falsely believe that both cigarettes and processed meat (meat transformed through salting, curing, fermentation and smoking to enhance flavour or improve preservation, such as salami, ham, bacon and pepperoni) are just as dangerous as one another because they have both been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “Group One carcinogen”. Other examples of Group One carcinogens include alcohol and asbestos.
However, this classification relates to the strength of the evidence that the product causes cancer – not the level of risk itself.
For instance, one study included in IARCs review of processed meat found that your risk of getting bowel cancer increases by 18% if you eat 50g of processed meat every day. Currently the average Australian has an 8.2% chance of being diagnosed with bowel cancer over their lifetime. This means that according to the evidence, if they consume 50g of processed meat every day, this average lifetime risk goes up to 9.3%. By contrast, men who smoke cigarettes have about 20 times the risk of developing lung cancer as men who do not smoke. Expressed as a percentage, the increase in risk due to smoking is 1,900%. Two out of three long-term smokers will die a premature death due to smoking related disease.
The IARC review also doesn’t identify a safe level of consumption of processed meat. In the case of processed meat, the evidence suggests that the more you consume, the greater your risk. This means there is probably a safe level of processed red meat consumption. In contrast, there is no safe level of smoking.
It’s important to remember that cancer is complex and our individual risk can be influenced by a range of factors – including other cancer risks and our genetics. That’s why Cancer Council encourages all Australians to reduce their risk by: