Alcohol and cancer – BECA reportFebruary 04, 2022
Days after World Cancer Day, the European Parliament will vote over the Special Committee on Beating Cancer report on strengthening the EU’s role in the fight against cancer. The report also includes (Paragraph 15 and Paragraph 16) recommendations on action regarding alcohol and cancer link. The report recalls that alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many different cancers and calls for promotion of actions to reduce and prevent alcohol-related harm, better information to consumers by improving the labelling of alcohol beverages to include health warning labels, prohibition of alcohol advertising at sport events when those events are mainly attended by minors and prohibition of alcohol sponsorship of sport etc.
The European Parliament will vote on the BECA report at the February plenary session, and there are clear indications that some EU member states will attempt to amend the role and wording of alcohol in the report to “restore proper balance.” South-European economical interests have promised to “fight tooth and nail” against the measures suggested in the report. Arguments that will be used will include keywords like “moderation”, “Mediterranean diet”, “jobs”, “export” etc.
Why is it important that the Parliament supports the proposed paragraphs on alcohol as a cancer risk factor?
ALCOHOL CAUSES CANCER. Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means there is no doubt it causes cancer, just like tobacco smoke and asbestos. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is causally linked to cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract (oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and oesophagus) and cancers of the colon, rectum, liver, and female breast.
THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL. BECA report refers to a 2018 study that found that there is no safe level when it comes to alcohol. The European Code Against Cancer clearly states that “if you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake. Not drinking alcohol is better for cancer prevention.” While the economic operators persist in claiming that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can decrease the risk of heart disease, the World Heart Federation published this January a policy brief that shows that “any level of alcohol consumption can lead to loss of healthy life.”
ALCOHOL IS A PREVENTABLE RISK FACTOR. Between 30-50% of all cancer cases are preventable. Prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer. Alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer, along with tobacco use and excess body weight.
HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM? Within the WHO European Region, about 180 000 cases of cancer and almost 92 000 cancer deaths were caused by alcohol in 2018. A study from 2021 revealed that in 2020 an estimated 741,300 cases of cancer, globally, were caused by alcohol. The data indicated that also moderate or low levels of alcohol consumption were estimated to have caused cases. Drinking up to 10g of alcohol a day, contributed somewhere between 35,400 and 145,800 cases globally in 2020.
WHY NOT LET EVERYONE DECIDE? The problem is that most people do not know that alcohol can cause cancer. On average, it appears that only a third of people acknowledge alcohol as a cancer risk factor. A Danish Cancer Society study from 2020 found that, unprompted, 22.2% of respondents were aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. According to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare report (2018) “Näin Suomi juo” only 37% of survey respondents fully agreed that alcohol use increases the risk of cancer. Canadian data, showing that only 1 in 3 Canadians are aware of the link between alcohol and cancer, proves the same point. When people are not aware, they cannot make informed choices.
SHOULDN’T WE HEAR WHAT ECONOMIC OPERATORS THINK? Not only are people not always well informed, but some are also actually misinformed. There is evidence that the alcohol industry sometimes misrepresents or downplays evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer. Recent study suggests that alcohol industry arguments used to prevent or delay countries from implementing effective alcohol labelling policies are being put forward in the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Committee. Analysis of 212 member statements on ten alcohol labelling policies found that more than half (55%; 117) included arguments made by the alcohol industry, while only 3% (7) statements expressly attributed them to industry.
It is required that different products not intended to be consumed by humans should warn against potential health hazards, but it has not been required that alcohol beverages intended for human consumption should warn against different negative consequences. This is because the industry has been heard for decades, and the result is that people are unaware, confused, and misinformed.
Executive Director, Nordic Alcohol and Drug Policy Network