Alcohol is contributing to a steep rise in mouth cancer cases in the UK. But few people are aware that it is a risk factor for the disease, according to a new Cancer Research UK survey.

Cases of mouth cancer have risen by a quarter over the past 10 years – from 3411 in 1992 to 4285 in 2001 [1]. While smoking rates have fallen in recent years, alcohol consumption has risen sharply [2].

The major risk factors for mouth cancer are smoking or chewing tobacco and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Smoking and drinking are together estimated to cause more than 75 per cent of mouth cancer cases in developed countries.

But while three quarters of people asked about the causes of mouth cancer were able to name smoking, only one fifth mentioned alcohol.

Cancer Research UK is today (Wednesday) launching its new three-year ‘Open Up to Mouth Cancer’ campaign, with funding from the Department of Health. Open Up to Mouth Cancer aims to raise awareness of the early signs and risk factors for mouth cancer, and is part of the charity’s Reduce the Risk campaign.

Sara Hiom, Head of Health Information at Cancer Research UK, says: “Mouth cancer is on the increase, and kills more people in the UK than cervical cancer and testicular cancer put together [3].

“The good news is that the disease is largely preventable. At least three quarters of mouth cancers could be prevented by stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake.”

“Our new campaign aims to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer. Evidence shows that early detection of mouth cancer can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment – raising five-year survival rates from around 50 to 90 per cent.”

The most common signs of mouth cancer are sores, ulcers, red or white patches and unexplained pain in the mouth or ear. Less common signs include a lump in the neck, a persistent sore throat or difficulty swallowing.

Sara Hiom adds: “If any of these signs persists for more than three weeks they need to be checked out by a doctor or dentist.”

Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, Professor Alex Markham, says: “It’s very worrying that people aren’t aware that alcohol is a major cause of mouth cancer.

“Alcohol consumption in Britain is rising rapidly. The recent rise in mouth cancer cases appears to be one of the unfortunate outcomes of excessive drinking in this country.

“Tobacco is the major cause of mouth cancer, so it is essential we continue our efforts at getting people to quit smoking.

“Greater awareness of the symptoms of mouth cancer – along with regular visits to the dentist – could greatly improve survival for the disease.”

Public Health Minister, Caroline Flint says: “I’m delighted the Department of Health has funded this campaign to advise people about the early signs of mouth cancer. More and more people are dying from mouth cancer because they seek help too late for it to be treated successfully. I hope the campaign will raise awareness and save lives by helping people to recognise the symptoms, seek an early diagnosis and obtain prompt treatment.”

Mouth cancer patient Jack Wild – who played the Artful Dodger in the 1968 film ‘Oliver!’ – says: “Until I was diagnosed with mouth cancer, I’d never heard of it. What I learnt very quickly was that my lifestyle had made me a walking time bomb. I was a heavy smoker and an even heavier drinker and apparently together they are a deadly mixture. I would urge anyone who has the symptoms to get them checked out immediately.”

Former England football manager Sir Bobby Robson says: “I am delighted that Cancer Research UK has launched this major awareness campaign and I feel compelled to support it because of my own story.

“In 1995 I had to have the roof of my mouth removed after a tumour was discovered. My surgeon had to cut around the nostril, sever the lip and take my teeth out during a 10-hour operation. I now wear an obturator which fits into my face and keeps it in shape. My teeth are attached to it.”

Sir Bobby is keen to stress the importance of early detection, recognising that he owes his own life to wife Elsie.

He explains: “I came home from the training ground one day and Elsie told me she had made a doctors appointment because I’d been feeling a tad poorly. At the time I was a bit annoyed because I didn’t have the time to go. I was referred to a consultant and it was following a biopsy that I learned I had cancer. I was later told that the early intervention was probably the difference between life and death.”


For media enquiries, please contact Nick Stewart at the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8317. Out of hours, please contact the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.


[1] These are the most recent incidence statistics available, and describe incidence in Great Britain.

[2] In the UK, consumption of alcohol has more than doubled since the 1950s, from 3.9 to 8.6 litres of pure alcohol per head per year.

The proportion of UK adults who smoke cigarettes fell substantially in the 1970s and the early 1980s – from 45 per cent in 1974 to 35 per cent in 1982. Since 1982 it has declined gradually and is currently around 26 per cent.

[3] In 2003, mouth cancer killed 1592 people, cervical cancer killed 1098 and testicular cancer killed 89.

You can find out more about Cancer Research UK’s new campaign on the Open Up To Mouth Cancer Website.

Tobacco is the major risk factor for mouth cancer. Stopping smoking leads to a rapid reduction in risk of the disease – the risk falling by 50 per cent within five years. After 10 years, the risk approaches that for life-long non-smokers.

Above four units of alcohol per day, mouth cancer risk increases linearly with the amount of alcohol consumed.

The combined effect of tobacco and alcohol on mouth cancer risk is much greater than that of either factor on its own. People who drink heavily and smoke are at 38 times greater risk of getting mouth cancer than abstainers from both products.

The percentage of the population who exceed the recommended weekly guidance of 21 units for men and 14 for women is steadily rising. In 1988 around 10 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men exceeded the limits compared with 18 per cent and 30 per cent in 2002. The heaviest drinkers are aged 16-24 years and this age group is also the most likely to binge drink.

At present the UK level of drinking is lower than in many European countries. However, whereas consumption is either falling or stabilising in most of these countries, in the UK it is rising quickly. It is estimated that if current trends continue, the UK could rise to be near the top of the consumption table within the next 10 years.

The number of cases of mouth cancer in Great Britain rose from 3411 in 1992 to 4285 in 2001. This equates to an increase of 26 per cent.

The age standardised incidence rate for mouth cancer increased by 22 per cent over the same period.

The biggest increase in cases has been in men in their 40s and 50s. Since 1975, the rate of mouth cancer doubled from 3.6 to 8.4 per 100,000 for men aged 40-49 and from 11.5 to 22.9 for men aged 50-59.

The Open Up to Mouth Cancer campaign is a three-year campaign with funding from the Department of Health. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the risks and symptoms of mouth cancer, and the importance of early detection.

Open Up to Mouth Cancer is part of Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign – launched in January this year – which invites people to take positive steps in five areas to reduce their risk of cancer: Stop smoking, Stay in shape, Eat and drink healthily, Be SunSmart and Look after number one – know your body and go for screening when invited.

Half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. Find out more about Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign on the Reduce the Risk website.

Visit our CancerHelp UK website for clear, easy to understand information about cancer and cancer treatments.