Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Better alcohol labelling - A way to boost awareness of the risk between alcohol and cancer?

In a guest blog, Ben Chiu, Policy Manager (Prevention & Health Services, Devolved) at Cancer Research UK explores the link between alcohol and cancer, and why we need to encourage governments to consider requiring alcohol products to contain information to help consumers understand what is in their drinks.

Most of us in the UK don’t know about the link between alcohol and cancer. It’s disappointing, but not exactly surprising. Our environment is so saturated by positive messages about alcohol that even the voices of medics and health bodies on its potential health risks get drowned out. 

It’s clear that something needs to change. There’s no silver bullet, but one way of increasing awareness would be requiring stronger, better labelling on alcohol products – potentially including cancer specific warnings.

Cancer itself is one of a number of serious health risk factors for drinkers. Everyone in the UK has a right to know about its link with alcohol. In 2018, Cancer Research UK published a study which found that drinking alcohol causes 11,900 cases of cancer each year in the UK. [i] Alcohol is linked with seven types of cancer. [ii][iii] There’s no safe level of drinking. The risk of oesophageal, oral cancers and breast cancer can increase even if you don’t drink much, while the risk of others increase if you drink a lot – such as bowel and liver cancer. [iv] [v][vi]

Although we know alcohol cause cancer, we don’t know exactly how.  There are a few different theories.. One is that your body turns alcohol into a toxic chemical that damages DNA. Another is that alcohol increases levels of some hormones. And the last is that alcohol makes it easier for other cancer-causing chemicals to absorbed into your body.

Boosting awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer has been challenging. Research shows over two thirds of people aren’t aware of cancer as a risk factor for drinking, and even when people have a list of health conditions in front of them, a third still can’t make the link.[vii] Of all social groups, younger people and those from poorer communities are the least likely associate the two.

This is why we need to get creative and encourage the UK and devolved governments to consider requiring alcohol products to contain information that empowers the public to know what they’re drinking. Better labelling could range from information on the 14 unit a week drinking guidelines, to specific warnings clearly stating the link between alcohol and cancer.

There is an array of encouraging evidence showing that better labelling could have a positive impact.

A review commissioned by Alcohol Focus Scotland found evidence that health warnings on alcohol products led to increased intention to reduce drinking, with further evidence that health warnings that link to a specific disease were especially effective.[viii] Similarly, a real-world experiment in Canada has shown that better alcohol labels (which included a cancer warning, the low-risk drinking guidelines and the standard drinks per serving) can increase people’s knowledge of the link between alcohol and cancer[ix] and the low-risk drinking guidelines,[x] and prompt people to cut back on their drinking.[xi] [xii]

It’s vital that more is done to ensure better awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer. Moving forward, Cancer Research UK encourages the UK and devolved governments and researchers to explore what better labelling could look like in the UK, with a view to providing consumers with the information they need and want to make informed choices.

 Ben Chiu, Policy Manager (Prevention & Health Services, Devolved) at Cancer Research UK. 29 

29 October 2020.

[i] Brown, K. F. et al. (2018) The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br. J. Cancer 118, 1130–1141 (pdf)

[ii] Bagnardi, V. et al. (2015) Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis. Br. J. Cancer 112, 580–593 (website)

[iii] Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet (London, England) 392, 1015–1035 (2018). (website)

[iv] IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans (2010) Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate. (website)

[v] Bagnardi, V. et al. (2013) Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis. Ann Oncol. 301-308 (website)

[vi] Corrao, G., Bagnardi, V., Zambon, A. & La Vecchia, C. (2004) A meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and the risk of 15 diseases. Prev. Med. (Baltim). 38, 613–619 (website)

[vii] Alcohol Health Alliance (2018) How We Drink, What We Think (pdf)

[viii] Dimova, E. D. and Mitchell, D. (2020) Rapid literature review on the impact of health messaging and product information on packaging of alcohol and other unhealthy commodities (website)

[ix] Hobin, E. et al. (2020) Testing alcohol labels as a tool to communicate cancer risk to drinkers: a real-world quasi-experimental study in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 81, 249–261. (website)

[x] Schoueri-Mychasiw, N. et al. (2020) Examining the impact of alcohol labels on awareness and knowledge of national drinking guidelines: A real-world study in Yukon, Canada in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 81, 262–272. (website)

[xi] Hobin, E. et al. (2020) Effects of strengthening alcohol labels on attention, message processing, and perceived effectiveness: A quasi-experimental study in Yukon, Canada in International Journal of Drug Policy, 77, 102666. (website)

[xii] Zhao, J. et al. (2020) The effects of alcohol warning labels on population alcohol consumption: An interrupted time series analysis of alcohol sales in Yukon, Canada in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 81, 225–237. (website)