- The causal link between alcohol and cancer demands all alcohol products must carry clear and impactful information and that citizens are informed of the risk.
Cancer concerns all European citizens. 40% of us are likely to be affected at some stage in our life and we all know someone who developed the disease. The World Health Organisation has recognized since 1987 that alcohol related cancers contribute significantly to the three million alcohol related deaths worldwide annually.
Alcohol consumption increases cancer risk with causal association established for breast cancer and various cancers of the digestive tract.
The EU Commission led by President Ursula von der Leyen, has prioritised the development of Europe’s Beat Cancer Plan, under the stewardship of the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. Every year, 3.5 million people in the EU are diagnosed with cancer, and 1.3 million die from it. Over 40% of cancer cases are preventable. Without reversing current trends, it could become the leading cause of death in the EU. Europe’s beating cancer plan aims to reduce the cancer burden for patients, their families and health systems. It aims to address cancer-related inequalities between and within Member States with actions to support, coordinate and complement Member States’ efforts.
In Ireland over 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers; one in eight female breast cancers are attributable to alcohol, and around 500 people die from these diseases every year, according to the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP).
This is why the Public Health Alcohol Act, 2018 has a measure to introduce mandatory health warning on all alcohol products sold in Ireland, including a warning informing the public of the direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers. This measure, despite being enacted in October 2018, has yet to be commenced.
In its submission to the EU Commission’s public consultation on the development of the Beating Cancer Plan (7 May), Alcohol Action Ireland outlined what we believe a successful cancer plan means, and what must have improved over the period in the lives of EU Citizens:
Citizens should be better informed of avoidable risk; engaged with holistic preventative strategies, and encouraged, and supported, by consistent communication strategies across all potential interventions that have been recalibrated against commercial marketing. Legally binding instruments around alcohol will have been implemented. These include restrictions on marketing and labelling of alcohol products with a cancer warning.
We outlined our contribution to the proposed Plan:
Alcohol Action Ireland is committed to having health warning labelling, including informing the public of the direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers, implemented on all alcohol products. Our advocacy has driven this initiative and we view its implementation in Ireland as an opportunity to ensure that citizens can make informed choices and better appreciate the cancer related risk with consuming alcohol. We believe we can contribute to a process to ensure all EU citizens are equally informed of this risk.
And urged a recognition of the harm caused by alcohol consumption:
The citizens of the European Union remain the highest consumers of alcohol globally. We believe that the direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers must be recognised as a profound cause of cancer amongst our citizens, and that the proposed EU Beating Cancer Plan must place this fact at the heart of its actions.
This observation has been further reinforced by the recent publication of some ground-breaking research.
A series of studies coming out of Canada – Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, et al., indicates the efficacy of alcohol warning labels and in particular, cancer warning labels on alcohol products, to raise awareness and alter consumption patterns. A study, conducted in Whitehorse, Yukon, testing drinkers’ recall and knowledge that alcohol can cause cancer, demonstrates the effectiveness of cancer warning labels on alcohol products. Equally, the research showed that when alcohol products sold included a cancer warning that per capita sales of labelled products decreased by 6.59%.
The research teams have concluded that applying such alcohol warning labels to alcohol products could make a significant impact in motivating drinkers to consume less.
To date the alcohol industry has worked to ensure that well established cancer risks posed by its product continue to be overlooked by both regulators and the public.