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It’s time to make the link between alcohol and cancer clearer

New research has revealed how many cases of cancer can be linked to drinking alcohol across the world. Dr Stuart Griffiths, our Director of Research & Services, explains how better labelling could help reduce the impact of alcohol on cancer in Yorkshire.

It’s clear that for many people, drinking alcohol is a part of everyday life. We, including myself, often use alcohol to celebrate, to console, and to socialise. However, alcohol can have a significant impact on our health, including causing cancer.

A recent study has laid bare the impact that alcohol has on cancer across the world. Researchers estimated that of all the new cancers diagnosed in 2020 worldwide, 741,300 could be linked to alcohol. This is around 4% (1 in 25) of all the cancers diagnosed across the world last year.

The global impact

To date, alcohol has been linked to seven different cancers. These include cancer of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, and larynx (voice box), as well as liver cancer, and common cancers like bowel and breast.

The study revealed that more than 3 in 4 of the alcohol-linked cancers were in men. And while almost half of the alcohol-linked cancers were in people who drank heavily, 14% (100,000) of cancers were linked to so-called ‘moderate’ drinking of less than 20g of alcohol a day – that is to say a pint of beer or a large glass of wine.

Looking closer at the impact of alcohol in different countries, the study calculated that in the UK, nearly 17,000 cancers diagnosed last year could be linked to alcohol. Based on this, we estimate that as many as 1,300 cases of cancer – or 1 in every 25 - in Yorkshire could have been caused by alcohol.

Tackling low awareness

Awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer is low. In November 2019 we surveyed more than 1,100 people in Yorkshire and asked them to identify which health issues are linked to drinking alcohol. The vast majority correctly said liver disease and most people knew about liver cancer. But fewer than half of people knew that mouth and throat, bowel and breast cancers can be caused by alcohol.

The UK Government recommends consuming no more than 14 units a week, which is six pints of 4% beer, six medium glasses of wine or 14 single (25ml) shots of spirit. In our survey, 6 in 10 people did not know about these weekly guidelines and less than half knew how many units were in common alcoholic drinks.

Better labelling

There are plenty of things that national and local governments can do to help make it easier for people to cut down on alcohol. One simple idea is to improve labelling on alcoholic drinks.

Currently, the only health-related information required by law on alcohol bottles or cans is alcohol by volume (ABV), or the percentage alcohol content. In 2011 the government and drinks manufacturers agreed that alcohol labels should include information such as guidelines on safer consumption and warnings against drinking while pregnant. But this agreement is voluntary, and best practice is not often followed. Health warnings are often relegated to the ‘small print’, written in text too small to be read easily by everyone.

Improving alcohol labelling is popular among the public. 4 in 10 (41%) people in Yorkshire in our 2019 survey thought that better alcohol labelling with clear health warnings was a good way to encourage people to drink less. Just over a third (36%) thought that labels should include information warning about the link between alcohol and cancer.

A huge opportunity

There’s a huge opportunity to improve labelling on alcohol products. This will help to raise awareness of the health risks of drinking, and in turn could help reduce alcohol consumption. To make alcohol labels as effective as possible, researchers have determined that they could include nutritional information such as calorie content, drinking guidelines such as definitions of ‘moderate intake’, and health warnings.

Large visible health warnings, like those on the packages of cigarettes and other tobacco products, could send an even clearer message about the health risks of alcohol. This is a key recommendation from the Alcohol Health Alliance in the UK.

Better alcohol labelling is not a silver bullet. It’s just one of a range of measures which will be needed to support people to drink less alcohol. But we believe that improving labelling is an important step. With as many as 1,300 people in Yorkshire developing cancer linked to alcohol last year, it’s time we make the link between cancer and alcohol clearer.

Now, where’s my 0% beer…

Want to find out more about the links between drinking and cancer? Read our position statement on alcohol.