Public understanding of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer in the United Kingdom is low, according to a report by the University of Sheffield and Cancer Research UK.1
In the United Kingdom, approximately 12800 alcohol-related cancer cases occur each year, including cancers of the mouth, throat, pharynx, and larynx; esophageal cancer; breast cancer in women; liver cancer; and bowel cancer.2
“People are generally aware that drinking too much alcohol can have a negative impact on their health, but they tend first to think of the consequences of intoxication, such as injuries, or the impact of heavy drinking, such as alcohol dependence and liver problems, rather than cancer,” said lead author Penny Buykx, PhD, of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, in an interview with Cancer Therapy Advisor.
“Conversely, if you take cancer prevention as a starting point, many cancer awareness campaigns have, in the past, focused on issues such as smoking, sun exposure, and environmental factors, but have less commonly focused on alcohol,” Dr Buykx said. “Providing information about this link is now an increasing priority for public health advocates working in both the alcohol and cancer prevention fields.”
In the 2015 survey, researchers asked 2100 participants to designate which health conditions they thought could result from heavy alcohol consumption; 13% mentioned “cancer.” They were then given a list of 8 specific cancer types and asked if they thought alcohol consumption increased the risk of developing each cancer. Less than half correctly linked the disease to alcohol.
For the cancers that they indicated to be alcohol-related, the participants were asked at what level of consumption the risk of developing cancer began to increase. The survey also asked if they knew the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption; approximately 20% were able to respond correctly.
Following the conclusion of the study in January 2016, the UK Department of Health updated its guidelines, reducing the recommended limit from 21 units per week to 14 for both men and women. The update also recommended that drinkers spread this consumption “evenly over 3 days or more.”3
“The lack of awareness of alcohol guidelines we found in our study was specific to the old UK guidelines,” said Dr Buykx. “It is likely there will be a flurry of promotional activity and media coverage once the updated guidelines are officially released. We have started another project to monitor any changes in awareness over time.”
The report found “high levels of support” for including health warnings and health information labeling on alcohol products. “In relation to tobacco, we have seen an increasing tendency for governments to compel industry to provide health information through product labeling,” said Dr Buykx. “It will be interesting to see whether the same occurs for alcohol.”
A second report scheduled to be published in summer 2016 will examine public attitudes toward alcohol policy.
- Buykx P, Li J, Gavens L, et al. An investigation of public knowledge of the link between alcohol and cancer. University of Sheffield and Cancer Research UK. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/ files/an_investigation_of_public_knowledge_of_the_link_between_alcohol_and_cancer_buykx_et_al.pdf. Published 2015. Accessed May 16, 2016.
- American Cancer Society. Alcohol use and cancer. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/ dietandphysicalactivity/alcohol-use-and-cancer. Updated February 2, 2014. Accessed May 16, 2016.
- UK Department of Health. Alcohol guidelines review – Report from the guidelines development group to the UK chief medical officers. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/ uploads/attachment_data/file/489797/CMO_Alcohol_Report.pdf. Published January 2016. Accessed May 16, 2016.