Exploring the Gap in the Public’s Understanding of the Links between Alcohol and Cancer
Cancer is the leading cause of death in the UK and carries an enormous cost burden, both financial and personal. Around one in four cancers however are lifestyle-related, and therefore ultimately preventable. This includes alcohol (3.3%), but awareness of this fact among the public is low comparative to cancer links with smoking.
This is a significant public health issue.
Alcohol accounts for 11,894 cancer cases per year in the UK.
While rising consumption increases cancer risk with some cancers such as breast cancer even lower levels of consumption pose a significant risk. The mortality rates for the majority of alcohol-related cancers have remained static, with an increase in alcohol-related liver cancer deaths. Furthermore, alcohol-related cancers are strongly and disproportionately linked to health inequalities.
Reasons for the disparity in the public’s understanding of alcohol-related cancer risks
The following reasons for the gaps in public understanding of alcohol-related cancer risk are discussed in detail in the article.
- Failure of the government to enforce regulation on alcohol advertising, availability and price leading to industry self-regulation, adolescent exposure to alcohol advertising, industry sponsoring of high profile sports and music events, increase in alcohol availability and affordability.
- Problematic product labelling, for example only 14 out of 100 alcohol-containing products currently display up-to-date labelling.
- Involvement of alcohol industry funded CSR bodies which have repeatedly shown to align themselves with the economic interests of the alcohol industry rather than acting as independent bodies.
- The need to move beyond tobacco exceptionalism in which different regulatory approaches are applied towards the tobacco and alcohol industries despite both causing harm.
- Non industry related factors such as, the ‘mechanistic’ link between alcohol and cancer compared to smoking being less obvious and challenging the nature of communicating alcohol harm.
Following recommended solutions are discussed by the authors:
- World Health Organization’s (WHO) three ‘best buys’ for alcohol policy – These are aimed at reducing population level alcohol consumption: increasing excise taxation, a ban on advertising and reduced availability.
- Minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol – One of the most effective and cost-effective alcohol policies, which also specifically targets individuals at the greatest risk of alcohol-related harm, including cancer.
- A complete ban on alcohol advertising – This would prevent any misleading messages about alcohol-related harm.
- Expand product labelling – expansion of the current health warning to include the risks of cancer, liver disease, stroke and mental health problems among others, in addition to clearly stating the 2016 UK low-risk alcohol use guidelines and nutritional information.
- Increase in investment in mass media health campaigns – with regular evaluation and independent of the alcohol industry.
- Recommended themes for mass media health campaigns include, communicating that alcohol causes common cancer types, that any level of alcohol use can increase your cancer risk and that the risk increases the more you consume alcohol.
- Harnessing embedded public knowledge about the risks of smoking and cancer and using this as a ‘yard-stick’ for alcohol and cancer risk.
- Alcohol cessation programmes require long-term funding commitments – to promote their use through increased availability as well as adverts promoting acceptability.
Arguments regarding the revenue generated by the alcohol industry need to be balanced against the fact that alcohol misuse is estimated to cost £21 billion a year for England and Wales. We therefore hope that our government will make the necessary moves in the fight against cancer by prioritising the public’s health above their relationship with this powerful industry,” concludes the authors of the study, as per RCP Journals.