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Australian alcohol’s missing ingredient

Posted by Brian, September 2014

Since the 1980s, Australians haven't been able to buy a cigarette pack without being confronted by the warning that smoking causes deadly cancers and other diseases.

The statistics tell us that at least 5,000 cancers diagnosed every year are linked with long-term chronic alcohol consumption. And it's not just heavy drinking that increases the risk of developing cancer – the risk of cancer is greater for every additional alcoholic beverage consumed.

So, why aren't we more alarmed that there's no warning about this on the label of alcohol products?

Well, one of the reasons is probably the popularity of drinking and the way alcohol is viewed in Australian culture. If you're somebody who drinks, it might be tempting to ignore the facts about alcohol and cancer, especially if you've heard people bemoan that 'everything' gives you cancer these days, so there's 'nothing' you can do. But this is simply untrue.

The reality is, there are only a handful of proven cancer causing agents – and most of these are either banned in Australia or already carry a warning label.

Researchers at Curtin University recently asked drinkers for their opinion of different versions of cancer warnings on alcohol labels. They discovered that the majority of drinkers found the messages believable and helpful, and by increasing awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer, drinkers could make their own informed choices.

This study backs up previous surveys from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that found more than two thirds of Australians would support the inclusion of more health information on alcohol labelling.

None of this is a new idea. Alcohol products sold in the United States have carried a government health warning label since the 1980s, and even Australian products exported to the US must carry that warning label. Here in Australia, the Preventative Health Taskforce, which was set up by the Federal Government, recommended that health warnings be placed on alcohol labels in 2009.

Just recently, we've started to see some manufacturers put small labels on alcohol products that warn about the risks of drinking while pregnant. This is obviously sensible advice, but for the majority of drinkers who aren't pregnant or never will be, the message holds little sway. By comparison, the risk of cancer from alcohol would be a message relevant to all drinkers.

With the scientific evidence to support it, public backing it, and the Government's own experts recommending it, it's about time Australian consumers got what they deserved: labels with the real facts about the health risks of drinking alcohol.

Brian Vandenberg is the Executive Officer for the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol and a Senior Policy Advisor on Alcohol at the Cancer Council Victoria.

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