Globally alcohol caused 741,300 cancer deaths in 2020. Despite this, one in four Canadians remain unaware of alcohol’s cancer risk. A growing number of advocates are calling on the Canadian federal government to implement health warning labeling on alcohol products to better inform Canadians and protect people from alcohol harm.

Everyone wants to live long, healthy, and happy lives. However, the products and practices of the alcohol industry lead to about 200 diseases, including cancer. Alcohol harms people’s health, quality of life and happiness. Part of the problem is that people are being kept regarding alcohol’s health risks – by the alcohol industry and by governments that fail to prioritize the health of their citizens.

According to a study published in The Lancet, alcohol caused over 741,300 cancer cases, worldwide in 2020. This translates to 4% of all cancers or one in 25 cancers caused by alcohol. Alcohol is known to cause seven types of cancer. These are,

  1. mouth,
  2. throat (pharynx),
  3. food pipe (esophagus),
  4. voice box (larynx),
  5. breast (in women),
  6. bowel (colon and rectum), and
  7. liver cancer.

While heavy alcohol use and high risk alcohol use account for most of the global cancer burden, even low-dose alcohol use – which is less than 20grams of alcohol use per day – causes 100,000 cancer cases.

Cancer cases caused by alcohol globally
A study finds alcohol caused 741,300 or 4% of all cancers in 2020, globally.
Cancer cases caused by low-dose alcohol use globally
According to the study low-dose alcohol use caused 100,000 out of the total alcohol cancer cases, globally.

Lack of alcohol health warning labeling in Canada

Despite the high health risks in Canada only 25% or one in four of those who use alcohol in Canada are aware of these risks, according to the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR).

One of the major reasons for this lack of awareness is the fact that there is no government-mandated health warning labeling on alcohol products.

There isn’t any health warning so the implicit assumption is that it can’t be serious or bad enough, or surely the government would require it – and they don’t,” said Dr. Tim Stockwell, a scientist at CISUR and professor at the University of Victoria’s psychology department, as per Capital Current.

Dr. Tim Stockwell, scientist at CISUR, and professor at the University of Victoria’s psychology department

Meanwhile, alcohol use has been growing in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Statistics Canada survey, one in four Canadians reported they increased their alcohol use in January 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic period. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, alcohol sales across the country rose by 4.2% from the previous year, according to another StatsCan study. This is the largest alcohol sales increase in over a decade.

Experts like Patricia Barrett-Robillard, a cancer coach for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation Centre, are worried this could mean a rise in patients.

Dr. Stockwell and a growing number of health experts, advocacy groups, and communities are now calling on the government to implement mandatory health warning labels on alcohol products such as those used on cigarette packets.

Evidence shows alcohol health warning labels will work in Canada

In 2017 a study led by Dr. Stockwell and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs provided evidence that alcohol health warning labels will work in Canada.

In the study, the researchers with the permission of the Yukon Territory government in Canada experimented with implementing alcohol warning labels on alcohol products at a large government-owned liquor store in Whitehorse.

The results showed a 6.6% sales decrease in Yukon compared to a 6.9% increase in sales in a nearby territory used as the control group.

This will reach the people who need the message the most,” said Dr. Stockwell, as per Capital Current.

The more you [use alcohol], the more you see the messages. There’s kind of a perfect strategy (with AWLs) and I think almost anything else pales into insignificance.”

Dr. Tim Stockwell, scientist at CISUR and professor at the University of Victoria’s psychology department

Support for alcohol health warning labels

Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) is one organization that supports alcohol health warning labels. The organization says that it is the Canadian government’s responsibility to provide health risk information on products used by people in Canada and that apart from health warning labels alcohol products should carry information on serving sizes and standard unit sizes.

MADD says that the alcohol health warning labeling should be consistent with other health harmful products labeling, such as the health warning labels on Cannabis products.

The Canadian Liver Foundation is another strong advocate for health warning labels in Canada.

Dr. Eric M. Yoshida, who is a board member of the Foundation, urged the government to implement health warning labeling in his editorial about the link between alcohol and cancer for the Canadian Liver Journal. Referring to the Yukon study he wrote “labels also increased awareness of and conversations about alcohol-related health effects and decreased consumption.”

The alcohol industry keeps people in the dark about alcohol’s cancer risk

Dr. Stockwell believes it is lack of awareness and alcohol industry influence that has led to governments still not implementing alcohol health warning labels.

I think it’s a lack of awareness (of the health risks) generally, and the industry working very hard to keep us all in the dark,” said Dr. Stockwell, as per Capital Current.

Dr. Tim Stockwell, a scientist at CISUR and professor at the University of Victoria’s psychology department

The alcohol industry aggressively lobbies against health warning labels and thwarts science that shows the effectiveness of the policy.

Dr. Stockwell’s Yukon study was initially meant to last for eight months but was stopped after just one month since the alcohol industry threatened to take legal action if not. After shutting down the study, the alcohol industry made media statements distorting and denying the evidence.

The alcohol industry has blocked alcohol labeling in other countries as well. For example, the Commonwealth of Independent States, which encompasses nine formerly Soviet countries, as well as the European Union, and Thailand have all tried to introduce some form of health warnings labeling on alcohol containers, failing due to the alcohol industry lobbying against the policy, according to the WHO.

Even the recent success in alcohol pregnancy warning labeling in Australia and New Zealand came after many years of wrangling with the alcohol industry.

Similar arguments are put forth by Spirits Canada the lobby front group for the alcohol industry in Canada. Jan Wescott, the president and CEO of the group, claims they wanted consumers to know the risks but not in the form of health warning labels. Mr Wescott claimed warning labels were “too costly” and “misleading”.

Spirits Canada is the front group for alcohol industry giants Bacardi, Beam Suntory, Campari Group, Diageo, and Pernod Ricard.

Contrary to what the Big Alcohol claims, science has shown that alcohol causes cancer and alcohol companies are highly profitable and change their labels all the time, for specific marketing occasions.

Meanwhile, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is leaving the responsibility of alcohol warning labeling to Health Canada. And Health Canada has so far not taken any step except for acknowledging that alcohol causes cancer.

Some believe that provincial governments may not be pushing for alcohol health warning labels due to a conflict of interest with the tax revenues they gain from alcohol sales. However, the costs of alcohol on Canadian people are far greater than any tax revenues from the product.

Evidence shows that alcohol harm is a much bigger problem in Canada than opioids, but the harm caused by Big Alcohol receives much less political attention compared to opioids, for instance.

It is estimated that annually alcohol causes:

  • 18,000 deaths,
  • Costs amounting to an estimated $16.6 billion annually in 
    • health care, 
    • lost productivity, 
    • criminal justice, and 
    • other direct costs.

Urgent federal policy action is needed to ensure alcohol health warning labels are mandated in Canada to ensure the safety of all Canadian citizens.

Source Website: Capital Current