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Spoiler alert – alcohol causes cancer

Alcohol industry executives don’t want you to know that alcohol causes cancer. That’s because if people buy less alcohol, they make less profit.

As a consumer, however, you have the right to know when a product has the potential to cause you serious harm so that you can make an informed choice.

It is a common misconception that alcohol consumption is safe ‘in moderation’. Like tobacco, alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen – that’s the highest level given to a substance that can cause cancer.

In fact, your risk of breast cancer, mouth cancer, throat cancer and oesophagus cancer is increased with any regular amount of alcohol and continues to increase with every drink.

This means that there is no known safe limit for alcohol consumption.

It turns out what you don’t know can kill you.

Why isn’t this common knowledge?

There are four main reasons why this isn’t widely known:

1 – A causal relationship between alcohol and cancer was only definitively established ten years ago.

As with tobacco and cancer, the scientific evidence has been accumulating over time. About a decade ago it reached an indisputable level.

In 2007, in a thorough, systematic review of the worldwide evidence, the World Cancer Research Fund concluded that drinking alcohol was a cause of cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, breast, and colorectum in men. The World Cancer Research Fund added liver cancer to this list in 2015, and stomach cancer in 2018.

In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, assessed the evidence and came to virtually identical conclusions.

Once the causal relationship had been established, researchers sought to understand whether there was a safe level of alcohol consumption.

In 2018, the World Cancer Research Fund published an update based on a further systematic review of the worldwide evidence. It stated that there is strong evidence that risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and breast cancers is increased with any amount of alcohol, and continues to increase with every drink.

2 – The alcohol industry has fought hard to keep this information from you.

The alcohol industry continues to lobby against proposals to put health warning labels on alcohol packaging.

In Yukon Territory in Canada, the alcohol industry strongly opposed new labels warning that ‘alcohol can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancers’.

The industry succeeded in getting the labels removed by threatening wide-ranging legal action against the local liquor authority.

Similarly, right now in Australia, the alcohol industry is opposing a proposal for warning labels to be mandated on alcohol products to warn pregnant women that any amount can seriously harm unborn babies.

3 – The alcohol industry deliberately downplays the risks and misleads the public.

The alcohol industry has created organisations to disseminate information about alcohol and ‘drinking responsibly’ known as SAPROs – social aspects and public relations organisations.

Examples of these organisations include DrinkWise (Australia), DrinkAware (UK), DrinkAware (Ireland), Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (USA), and International Alliance for Responsible Drinking.

These organisations are funded and controlled by the alcohol industry. However, focus group research undertaken in Australia indicates that the public perceives DrinkWise to be an Australian government organisation.

A 2017 study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, analysed the accuracy of information about alcohol and cancer disseminated by the alcohol industry through these types of organisations. Most organisational websites (24 of 26), including DrinkWise, were found to contain significant omissions and/or misrepresentations of the evidence about the association between alcohol and cancer.

The researchers concluded that “the alcohol industry appears to be engaged in the extensive misrepresentation of evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer”.

The Australian Government recently conducted a consultation on its forthcoming National Alcohol Strategy. Responses from the alcohol industry consistently claimed that ‘moderate’ alcohol consumption has population health benefits, despite the strength of evidence to the contrary.

DrinkWise said that the National Alcohol Strategy should provide “recognition of the extensive literature associated with alcohol’s protective health effects”, and the Brewers Association of Australia claimed that “the best available evidence suggests protective effects [of alcohol]”.

4 – The alcohol industry misrepresents scientific research in the media to try and claim a protective effect of ‘moderate’ drinking.

This occurs frequently, but here’s a recent example:

On July 2 2018, New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council Executive Director Nick Leggett was quoted in an article titled ‘A drink a day may keep the doctor away’ in MindFood.com as saying “light-to-moderate consumption doesn’t have a negative impact on life expectancy or cancer or heart disease risks”.

He was commenting on research that had just been published in the journal PloS Medicine. It was a study that looked at the alcohol consumption of almost 100,000 people over 20 years in the U.S. and examined whether it was associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and deaths.

Leggett said, “studies like this emphasise that … light-to-moderate drinking behaviour … can have a positive health impact”.

I took a look at the journal paper and found very different results.

While the research suggests that risk of death from cardiovascular disease is slightly lower in light drinkers than non-drinkers*, it also confirms that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer. The research found that “light-moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers were at an increased risk of cancer overall … when compared to never drinkers”.

The researchers specifically concluded that “this evidence should not be taken to support a protective effect of light drinking”. There are other things you can do to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease which do not also increase your risk of cancer.

This example demonstrates the need to be sceptical about claims the alcohol industry make about cancer and alleged health benefits of ‘moderate’ alcohol consumption.

*A landmark research study published in the Lancet journal in April 2018 found that when you break down cardiovascular disease into its subtypes, alcohol consumption seems to decrease the risk of heart attacks, but increases the risk of stroke and heart failure even at low levels of consumption. The researchers concluded that the overall risk of death and cardiovascular disease outweighs any benefits from drinking alcohol.

Can you trust the evidence?

Yes, but don’t take my word for it. Here are some of the more recent research papers that show, even at low levels of consumption, alcohol increases the risk of cancer.

Jenny Goodare

Jenny oversees FARE’s work in Victoria and currently works across a number of FARE’s work programs including cancer risk and the National Alcohol Strategy. Jenny holds an undergraduate degree in Biology and a Masters and PhD in the History of Science. She has experience working in UK policy and politics, most recently in London as a Policy Officer/ Senior Policy Officer at the medical research charity Breast Cancer Now, before moving to Australia in 2016.


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