We all know binge drinking is unhealthy – socially, physically and emotionally. But what about the long-term effects of a lifetime of drinking, even at low levels?
Binge drinking is a worrying social issue burdening our health system. We also know that alcohol consumption is directly linked to a range of chronic health concerns, including cancer.*
In fact, the World Cancer Research Fund rates the evidence linking alcohol consumption with increased risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, bowel (in men) and breast as ‘convincing’ – their highest level of evidence rating.
But cancer isn’t something that’s high on the list of priorities for most young people. To be fair, health issues generally aren’t something that young people worry themselves about. Not when there are other more important things happening, and life to be lived. It’ll never happen to me, right?
“I do want to do the best thing for me but I wouldn’t turn around and say that’s it, I am giving up alcohol for good” – focus group participant
Overindulging on the weekend is the way many of us celebrate, the easiest way to achieve relaxation after a stressful day, synonymous with sporting wins (and defeats) and a rite of passage for young people. Drinking too much is an activity enjoyed by many young people, and they can justify just about any drinking occasion – to unwind, celebrate, commiserate or simply because it is habit.
“I cannot imagine a celebration without drinking; it just wouldn’t be the same” – focus group participant
But there are some young people out there who don’t want to drink so much. At Cancer Council NSW, we conducted some focus groups with young adults to see how much they care about their alcohol consumption, their general health and their cancer risk.
Amidst the invincibility of youth, there were also those who felt they needed an excuse not to drink. Some pretended they were on antibiotics. Others always offered to drive.
“(There’s) lots of peer pressure around drinking… keeping the good night happening” – focus group participant
Young people should feel that it is OK not to drink. It is sad that some choose to pretend they are sick to avoid losing face in front of their friends.
The evidence suggests that the young people who are the heaviest drinkers in youth go on to be the heaviest drinkers throughout adulthood. Increasing the number of young people who choose to spend their leisure time without alcohol will not only reduce alcohol-related violence and accidents, but also cut future cancer risk.
Were focus group participants aware of the link between alcohol and cancer? No, and some did not want to know.
“[Referring to an advertisement] It says it causes breast cancer, I’d totally dismiss that, nowhere have I ever heard that alcohol causes breast cancer.” – focus group participant
Others were shocked when they thought about just how much alcohol their bodies had to deal with. But one thing is for sure. The 5% of all Australian cancers attributable to alcohol can be prevented. To do this, our drinking culture must change.
Cancer Council NSW recommends that if you do drink, you should follow the NHMRC alcohol guidelines of no more than two standard drinks a day to reduce your risk of cancer in the future.
Celebrating nights without alcohol will ensure that our fond memories stay that way, and are not lost forever in the post-hangover haze. Who knows, it may even help to prevent cancer!
*Although there may be a protective effect of alcohol on cardiovascular risk, the Heart Foundation does not recommend drinking alcohol for the prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease. The burden of alcohol-related disease and injury in Australia far outweighs any potential benefit.
This month the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education is the Official On-Screen Partner for the One Direction ‘Take Me Home’ Australian Tour: 5th, 6th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th, 29th & 30th October 2013.
To celebrate, FARE is asking people to tell the story of the best alcohol-free night of their lives.
- Visit www.fare.org.au to find out more
- Tweet a photo of the best night of your life to @FAREAustralia using the hash tag #bestnight; or
- Post your photo on www.facebook.com/SupportFARE
This article was co-written by Lyndal Wellard and Clare Hughes.
Clare is the Nutrition Program Manager at Cancer Council NSW. She leads a team of dietitians and nutritionists responsible for the Cancer Council NSW’s nutrition-related cancer prevention projects. Clare has a Bachelor of Science (Nutrition), Master of Public Health and a Graduate Certificate in Public Policy. She joined Cancer Council NSW in 2011 after spending eight years as the Senior Food Policy Officer at Australia’s leading consumer organisation CHOICE.