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Carina Alm: In contrast to the other risk factors, alcohol is not framed or perceived as only unhealthy

Cancer societies are leading the way making people understand that alcohol also causes cancer. As Carina Alm, a special adviser at the Norwegian Cancer Society, explains, this is a difficult task as people have strong views and believe in different myths about that no ordinary commodity.

Lauri Beekmann: Norway is far ahead compared to most of the countries in the world when it comes to alcohol policy and understanding of alcohol related-harm. How do you estimate the knowledge of alcohol as a cancer risk? How well is it understood? Is it considered when cancer prevention is discussed?

Carina Alm: The data we have from different national surveys show that Norwegians aren’t much more knowledgeable than others when it comes to understanding the link between alcohol and cancer. 

How much is alcohol and cancer link used in alcohol policy discussion? 

The Norwegian Cancer Society regularly brings this up in the yearly national budget discussions and in different public health hearings, but more can absolutely be done. The topic is seldom very visible in the public debate. 

How important is this topic for the Norwegian Cancer Society? 

It is important as a carcinogen since 1987 and as one of the five risk factors in the NCD-agenda. Also, as one of 12 pieces of advice in the European Code against Cancer.

It is a global problem that the awareness about alcohol as a cancer risk is really low. What is your personal feeling; why is that? Why is it difficult for people to see alcohol as something that causes cancer?

In contrast to the other risk factors, alcohol is not framed or perceived as only unhealthy. Alcohol use is also an enjoyed and desirable behaviour. It has a big place in society, and our cultural norms and personal preferences may get in the way of tough policymaking. The longterm risk compared to the immediate pleasure is easy to dismiss. I also think that most people believe they have a manageable and not-harming consumption. The myth about heart health from a glass of red wine is still very much alive. And as with so much else in the public health sphere: people don’t like health messaging or to be told what to do.

What is NCS-s position on alcohol policy? Do you see that specific political measures can actually decrease cancer cases?

NCS supports the WHOs best buys when it comes to alcohol. Restrictions on affordability, availability and marketing. We also would like to have better information about health risks on alcohol containers. We’re sure that all theses measures could help decrease consumption and thereby cancer cases in the future. As you’re aware, Norway already has strict alcohol policies with for example marketing regulations, state monopoly, high prices and age limit – but the public health agenda is always under pressure, and as an NGO in the health field, we need to keep up the work.

If it would be up to NCS, what would be Norway´s official low-risk drinking guidelines?

Norway doesn’t have any low drinking guidelines, and we haven’t discussed this at NCS. Personally, I would prefer the lower the better message at the same time as we make people aware that there is no safe lower limit.