Increasing recognition of the risks of alcohol-related cancer has been a priority for a number of health organisations, with recent research identifying limited levels of awareness and projected rises in incidences.
A report released last month commissioned by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) attracted significant media coverage of its findings that alcohol-related cancers could cause around 135,000 deaths over the next 20 years in England. The modelling was carried out by Sheffield University and analysed figures under a number of consumption forecasts, and also provided updated estimates of the potential benefits of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). A 50 pence MUP could reduce all alcohol-attributable deaths by 7,200, including 670 cancer deaths over the next two decades, reducing alcohol-related healthcare costs by £1.3 billion.
The report follows findings released earlier in the year by CRUK stating the link between alcohol consumption and cancer was "worryingly low"; only 13% identified cancers as a possible risk when asked to identify alcohol-related health conditions associated with drinking too much. Recognition improved when prompted with possible cancer types, but those such as breast cancer had far lower recognition than less prevalent alcohol-related cancers. See here for a CRUK alcohol and cancer page.
Data used from the report though has just been published in BMC Public Health journal revealing significantly higher awareness of the links in the North East region, where Balance North East has been conducting media campaigns including TV adverts, www.reducemyrisk.tv and #7cancers Twitter activity.
Media campaigns: a question of behaviour change?
Health groups though tend not to want to see health campaigns in isolation owing to the limited impact on behaviour. Indeed similar debates have taken place with regard to the awareness of the revised drinking guidelines and the limitations of their impact on consumption.
Ealier this year Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies attracted controversy for suggesting drinkers should think 'Do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my own risk of breast cancer?' each time they drink. Whether any significant number of people have taken on the CMO's advice - or indeed deliberately rejected it - will remain unknown, but based on the evidence of the complexity of behaviour change it would seem unlikely.
As such health groups, including CRUK, not only wish to see media campaigns and improved information through mandatory labelling, but also action on price, availability and marketing. Such levers have considerably stronger evidence to support an impact on drinking behaviours, but are of course opposed by those who may support informed individual decision making but not the Government in influencing it via regulation.
As for the near future, momentum may continue with a general trend in increasing awareness of alcohol health harms. Whether this will be supported in England by legislation to ensure mandatory labelling on containers, or indeed change environmental influences, is uncertain. In the meantime, alcohol-related cancers are likely to rise before they fall, even should consumption fall further.