A pint of beer

Alcohol causes thousands of cases of cancer every year, but cutting back can reduce the risk.

You might be surprised to learn that alcohol-related cancer caused more hospital admissions than alcohol-related violence and road accidents combined (figures for England, 2010-11).

This is just one of the findings of a new report published by the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), highlighting the need for the UK to cut back on boozing in order to reduce cases of cancer and deaths from the disease. As well as gaining coverage in the media, the report will help politicians recognise the need for new measures to reduce alcohol harm.

The AHA believes that the UK’s problems with alcohol aren’t just social. It’s important that politicians also realise the true extent of the damage drinking does to the nation’s health. And Cancer Research UK agrees – that’s why we sponsored the report.

Let’s look at the risks in more detail.

Alcohol causes cancer

Alcohol is one of the most well-established causes of cancer. Experts, including the World Health Organisation, agree that it can cause seven types, including mouth, throat, breast and bowel cancers. You can read more about the evidence linking alcohol and cancer on our website. But despite this wealth of scientific evidence, many people don’t know that alcohol can increase the risk of cancer – even if you don’t drink particularly heavily.

In 2011, a Cancer Research UK-funded study calculated that alcohol causes around 12,500 cancers a year in the UK – that’s four per cent of all cases. And the new AHA report links alcohol to around 3,200 cancer deaths a year.

A nation of boozers?

You may be surprised to hear that the average amount of alcohol we drink in the UK rose by 91 per cent between 1960 and 2010. That’s a whopping increase. It’s based on HM Customs’ data on the amount of alcohol sold, rather than people’s own accounts of how much they drink (which we’ve recently been reminded can be rather unreliable.

But using the amount of alcohol sold also has drawbacks. For example we don’t know who drank the alcohol and how it was shared out between people – so for the purpose of these calculations, it’s divided equally between all the adults in the population. Obviously, not all those adults drink alcohol. In fact, the proportion of people in the UK who say they abstain from alcohol entirely has increased within that time. That means that those who do drink are likely to be consuming even more than previously thought.

Cutting down on alcohol cuts the risk of cancer

When stories about the risks of alcohol hit the headlines, we often find ourselves branded as the “fun police”, or dismissed as scare-mongers. But, as we’ve said before, it’s our responsibility to share information that helps people make informed choices about how they live their lives.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, and the more you drink the higher the risk. But the reverse is also true. While scientists haven’t found a “safe” level of alcohol that doesn’t increase the risk of cancer at all, sticking within the government limits, around two drinks a day for men or one for women, won’t have a big impact on most people’s risk of developing cancer.

If you drink more heavily, cutting the amount you drink – even if you’re still over the recommended amounts – can help reduce your risk. But the more you cut down, the bigger the difference.

Keep track, make a change

As we’ve mentioned, people are notoriously bad at knowing just how much they actually drink. And while we can all think of a silly comment about being too drunk to remember, it can be surprisingly hard to keep track.

People don’t tend to use a measure when they pour a glass of wine at home, and pubs and bars don’t always tell you the volume of your drink. A “large” wine in the Dog and Duck could mean 175ml, whereas the Fox and Pheasant serves you a much bigger 250ml. For a standard strength wine (12.5 per cent ABV) the difference is nearly a whole unit of alcohol. And units themselves aren’t as easy to use as we might like – there’s a guide to the units in common drinks on our website.

For some people, tracking how much they drink can be a wake-up call. There are alcohol trackers available on the web and as downloadable mobile phone apps – like this one produced by the NHS – which can help you assess whether you’re drinking more than you thought.

Cutting down can also be a positive change. Maria decided to make a change to her drinking in her 20s – watch her short video to find out where she felt the benefits:

You don’t need to cut out alcohol forever. For example, there’s a growing trend among young Aussies to take a break from drinking for a month or more. They say it gives them time to reassess when and why they drink, putting them back in control.

We also think that the government has a big role to play. Cancer Research UK would like to see new measures to make alcohol less affordable and attractive, helping to create a society that supports people to drink less. For example, the evidence suggests that a minimum unit price for alcohol would help to reduce the harm caused by rising affordability of alcohol. In particular, this would help to limit the impact of very cheap alcoholic drinks.

If you’re feeling inspired, or have been thinking of cutting back on booze for a while, there are lots of small and easy changes you can try. When you’re out, avoid getting dragged into big rounds – that way you decide when it’s time to go to the bar. And switching every other drink for a soft one can help too.

At home, you’re less likely to drink alcohol on autopilot if there isn’t a stash of it. Simple things like not having a bottle of wine or beer in the fridge can make you more likely to opt for a cup of tea after a long day. And don’t get into the habit of topping up your drink as you go – making sure you finish one drink before you pour another means you can keep track more easily.

The Change4Life website has a wealth of tips to help you cut down on drink. And the benefits – for your health and wealth – are waiting for you.

Sarah Williams, Health Information Officer