New research on alcohol and cancer. Are you at risk?
Monday 6 July, 2015 by Craig Sinclair, Head of Prevention at Cancer Council Victoria
This week, the Cancer Council Victoria announced important new research about the link between lifetime alcohol consumption and cancer.
Adding to the considerable body of evidence that already exists, the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study, funded by the Cancer Council Victoria, has tracked the drinking habits of 41,000 adults since the early 1990s. The research has confirmed that drinking more than four standard alcoholic drinks on average per day, more than doubles your risk of mouth and throat cancer, compared with drinking no alcohol at all. While evidence of an increased risk may not be new, the fact we now know it’s more than double is compelling.
Along with mouth and throat cancers, long term-alcohol consumption is estimated to be the cause of nearly 3000 new cancer cases each year in Australia, including cancers of the oesophagus, bowel (colon and rectum), liver and female breast. To put it in perspective, about the same number of Australians die from alcohol-related cancers as from melanoma each year. In Victoria alone, there were 351 cancer deaths in 2010 that could be linked to alcohol use.
Unfortunately despite the significant impact of alcohol on cancer incidence, we still have a very long way to go to convince the Victorian public of the relationship between the two. New data this week from the Cancer Council Victoria revealed that nearly half the respondents (46%) of a recent online survey of over 500 Victorian men and women believed that alcohol either made ‘no difference’ or were ‘not sure’ if it had any effect on a person’s risk of cancer. When we consider how widespread alcohol-related cancers actually are, this lack of awareness presents a real problem.
And it’s not just heavy drinkers who are at risk of cancer, even moderate alcohol consumption may increase a person’s risk, particularly if they drink regularly throughout their life. Given these risks, for those who do choose to drink, the Cancer Council Victoria recommends no more than two standard drinks on any given day.
Contributing to the problem of over consumption is the fact that what we all think of as a ‘standard drink’ is generally a long way away from the reality. Alarmingly, our online survey also found that the majority of Victorians are not entirely sure what constitutes ‘one standard drink’: for example, only 13% of survey respondents had an accurate understanding of the number of standard drinks in a bottle of wine (if you said 7-8 you would be right). What this tells us is that many Victorians who choose to drink are very likely to seriously underestimate the amount they are drinking.
In Australia, one standard drink is any drink that contains 10 grams of alcohol and is equivalent to a 100ml glass of wine, a 375ml can of mid-strength beer or one 30ml nip of spirits. Now, where it gets tricky is that the glass of wine you are likely to be buying over the counter in a pub will more than likely be significantly greater than this. The amount that is determined depends on the generosity of the venue (or perhaps how nice you are to the bartender). With some venues, for example, pouring out 195mls in one glass, you can very quickly work out that your limit of two standard drinks can be reached with just one glass of wine.
Having an inaccurate understanding of the amount you’re drinking, and perhaps drinking more than you thought, is a quandary compounded further when considering the role alcohol plays in people’s lives generally. There is enormous social pressure to drink and this starts at a young age. Alcohol is readily available, heavily promoted – including through sport, and relatively cheap. This promotion and availability is fuelling a drinking culture that often plays out in hospital waiting rooms.
Any of us who have chosen not to drink alcohol, very quickly realise just how deeply engrained alcohol is in our Australian culture, and therefore getting the message to stick that cancer risk starts from relatively low levels of alcohol consumption is a challenge.
Reductions in cancer deaths from tobacco and sun damage over the past decade have been the result of many years of rigorous public education campaigns, which have had the support of Government. Further support from Government at all levels is needed in relation to providing the education and supporting environments that will have an impact on reducing overall alcohol consumption, so that we can not only reduce the immediate effects of alcohol that are well publicised, but also the long term effects related to cancer.