Only one in 10 Britons know alcohol causes cancer, survey finds

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By Health policy editor

Cancer Research UK says scale of ignorance is worrying as findings also show backing for warning labels on bottles and cans

Only one in 10 people know that alcohol causes cancer, according to findings that also show strong public backing for cans and bottles of drink carrying warnings about the link.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) said widespread ignorance of alcohol’s role as a carcinogen was “very worrying”, while Alcohol Concern said the lack of knowledge was costing lives.

A survey of 2,000 people from across the UK, weighted to be representative of the population, found that only 10% mentioned cancer when they were asked which diseases and illnesses were linked to alcohol consumption.

That is despite the weight of evidence that has emerged in recent years of alcohol’s role as a cancer-causing agent. Research has shown it causes seven forms of cancer, namelyof the breast, liver, colon, rectum, oropharynx, larynx and oesophagus. There is some evidence, though not yet conclusive, that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer.

“Alcohol is a major cause of cancer but this survey clearly shows that the vast majority of people don’t know this, which is very worrying,” said Prof Linda Bauld, CRUK’s cancer prevention expert.

In the same survey, undertaken by OnePoll for the Alcohol HealthAlliance (AHA) of charities and medical groups, 77% of respondents said they supported the idea of a cancer warning being added to the labels of alcoholic products.

Bauld said CRUK agreed. “We urgently need to raise awareness. Requiring warning labels on alcohol products making clear the cancer link would be one way to do this, and this survey shows that the public support this measure.”

Richard Piper, the chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: “We all need to know the risks associated with alcohol so we can make informed choices about our drinking, and at the moment we clearly don’t. This lack of knowledge, combined with cultural factors, aggressive advertising and inadequate alcohol treatment services, is costing lives.”

He said alcohol was the biggest risk factor for death among people aged 15 to 49 in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor for all ages.

In 2016 Prof Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer, caused controversy whenshe told MPs that even one glass of wine could increase the risk of breast cancer. She later admitted she could have chosen her words more clearly but said there was a “straight line” of risk between drinking and breast cancer.

Weeks before Davies’ comments, the the UK’s latest alcohol guidelines were launched, which reduced the recommended limit for men from 21 to 14 units per week, the same as for women.

However, the survey’s findings also show that two years after the guidelines came out, only 16% of people are aware of them. Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist who chairs the AHA, said such high levels of ignorance were “really disappointing”.

The survey found 78% of people believe labels on alcohol products should warn consumers that exceeding the 14-unit limit can damage their health, and 73% think they should make clear how many calories alcoholic drinks contain. A large majority (77%) believe the UK has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

An estimated 3.1 million Britons are not drinking this month by taking part in Dry January. Alcohol Concern is running it this year in conjunction with Breast Cancer Now and World Cancer Research Fund. Breast Cancer Now said: “The less you drink regularly, the lower your risk of breast cancer. Try and spread the word that ditching the booze is what’s best for your breasts.”

Two-thirds of people who take part in Dry January go the whole month without drinking, and 72% drink less harmfully for at least six months afterwards, according to Alcohol Concern. It claimed “astounding benefits” for participants, including weight loss (for 49% of those taking part), better sleep (62%) and financial savings from not buying alcohol (79%).

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