International research shows New Zealand men and women have the third highest cancer rates in the world.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) compares incidence rates and the most commonly diagnosed cancers worldwide.

Male cancer rates are higher only in the United States and Hungary. The countries with the lowest rates are Niger, Gambia and the Congo.

The US also leads the world in female cancer rates, ahead of Israel and New Zealand, with Tunisia, Gambia and Oman at the bottom of the table of 2002 data.

Internationally, 10.9 million people a year are diagnosed with cancer and 6.7 million die from the disease. In New Zealand about 16,000 people develop cancer and there are 7500 cancer-related deaths.

Cancer Society medical director Dr Peter Dady said today he had no reason to doubt the IRAC's findings.

"Those are bloody awful figures and emphasises that we really have got to do something about them," he said. "The surprise is not that our cancer statistics are bad, but just how bad."

One reason New Zealand had high rates was because of a compulsory cancer registration system, which was introduced in 1993 and was "one of the best in the world".

It was likely some developing nations did not register all their cancers.

"Even in America the cancer registration is not as inclusive as ours," he said.

However, Dr Dady said high cancer rates could not be solely attributed to the registration system.

The Cancer Control Council announced by Health Minister Annette King in August 2003 was a step in the right direction, he said. Council members are due to be announced early next month.

A review of New Zealand's screening programmes was needed to ensure the right cancers were being screened for and treatment options must also be examined.

Colon/rectum cancer was New Zealand's most common form of the disease. Dr Day said this was related to diet and could be avoided by eating more fruit and vegetables.

A committee is currently examining a colorectal screening programme for bowel cancer.

Although lung cancer was declining in New Zealand there was alarming evidence that smoking was fashionable amongst young women, Dr Dady said.

NEW ZEALAND CANCERS (percentage of total cancers):
Colon and rectum - 14 per cent
Breast - 13 per cent
Prostate - 13 per cent
Skin melanomas - 10 per cent

- NZPA