Warning Drinkers Of Cancer Risk Could Reduce Consumption

Labels warning drinkers that they risk seven different forms of cancer could make some people re-think their alcohol consumption, according to a survey. But most people will ignore other warnings on bottles and drinks about the damaging effects of alcohol on health, the survey found. The annual Global Drugs Survey, which 130,000 people in 44 countries chose to complete online this year, asks about drug and alcohol use, risks and harms. Researchers said that given the success of graphic images on cigarette packets, they wanted to investigate the potential impact of warnings on bottles of wine, beer and spirits among the 3,600 survey responders in England. They devised seven different health warnings, in collaboration with health experts, from “heart disease is a major cause of death among people with heavy alcohol use” to “a bottle of wine or six bottles of beer contain as many calories as a burger and fries.” Other warnings concerned liver disease, the increase in violence among drinkers, the increased cancer risk, the recommendation from experts to have at least two alcohol-free days a week and the absence of any health benefits from drinking, even at low levels.

Most people said they believed the messages – nearly 90% believed alcohol could lead to violence and 80% knew there were a lot of calories in alcoholic drinks. And yet most would not rethink the amount they drank if any of those warning labels were on bottles. The warning that appeared to reach the most people was that “drinking less reduces your risk of seven different sorts of cancer.” Among the 3,600 people in England who responded to the survey, 40% said it would or might affect the amount they drank, 5% said they were unsure, and 55% said it would not change anything. Warnings about calories would or might change the habits of 31% of people and warnings that alcohol increases violent and abusive behaviour would or might make 27% of people cut down.

Drinks manufacturers already have to put the alcohol levels, and the chief medical officer’s recommended alcohol limits on their products. A report from the Alcohol Health Alliance in January found that most did not include the up to date guidance of 14 units a week for men and women. They found that none had health warnings featuring specific illnesses or recommending drink-free days. Professor Adam Winstock, consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist and founder of the Global Drug Survey said it showed that there was much to do about alcohol messaging in the UK. “It is clear that the link between alcohol consumption and increased cancer risk is a message that is still not reaching UK drinkers and where it does, many chose to react to the message with scepticism. The alcohol industry which makes profits from selling its product will never embrace anything that might lead to people drinking less. A self-regulated industry will always regulate to optimise profits, not public health.’’ Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “These results on the potential power of health information on alcohol labels are important and compelling. They make it clear that people just do not know about key health issues like the link between alcohol and cancer that might well change their behaviour and improve public health.”

Credit: Sarah Boseley for The Guardian, 8 May 2018.