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New report highlights low awareness of alcohol-related cancer risks: Danish Cancer Society expert explains

16.05.2024 - In a recent interview with AlcoholAndCancer.eu, Anne Sofie Plum Christensen, Special Consultant at the Danish Cancer Society, shared insights from their latest report on alcohol and cancer. The report consolidates existing research to highlight the critical link between alcohol consumption and cancer, emphasizing that even low levels of alcohol intake can increase cancer risk. Alarmingly, public awareness of this connection remains low, with only one in ten Danes aware of the link between alcohol and breast cancer. Christensen discusses the need for comprehensive alcohol prevention policies, including higher taxes, stricter age limits, and marketing restrictions, to mitigate these risks and promote informed decisions about alcohol consumption.

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Interview

AlcoholAndCancer.eu: What are the most significant findings from your recent report on alcohol and cancer, and what kind of developments can you find compared to previous surveys?

Anne Sofie Plum Christensen: Our new report on alcohol and cancer (https://www.cancer.dk/om-os/udgivelser-og-rapporter/forebyg-kraeft/alkohol-og-kraeft/) is a synthesis of existing research rather than presenting novel findings. The aim of the report is to compile our understanding of the relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer and disseminate this information to both professionals and the public. But here are the key messages from the report:

  • Alcohol increases the risk of at least seven types of cancer.

  • Even low levels of alcohol intake can increase the risk of cancer.

  • Awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer is low

  • Only one in ten individuals is aware that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer, although alcohol contributes to 370 cases of breast cancer annually in Denmark.

  • Few people recognize that even modest alcohol consumption increases cancer risk (For instance, only 27% of those who consume more than 10 units of alcohol per week (1 unit = 12 grams of pure alcohol) are aware of the heightened risk associated with their drinking habits (this finding is from our other recent report "Alcohol Habits in Denmark 2023").

  • You can reduce your risk of cancer by cutting down on alcohol consumption.

 

In the report, you outline various policy recommendations related to alcohol consumption and cancer prevention. Could you elaborate on the most pivotal of these recommendations and the expected impact they might have if implemented?

The most critical recommendations for alcohol prevention involve increasing prices (through higher taxes and minimum unit pricing), reducing availability (including raising age limits), and restricting marketing. These measures are all vital and effective in reducing alcohol consumption. A comprehensive strategy is essential, as prevention measures are most effective when they complement each other.

 

Regarding availability, the Danish Cancer Society places special emphasis on raising the age limit for purchasing alcohol to 18 years. Higher age limits are linked to later onset of alcohol consumption and lower alcohol intake among adolescents. Denmark stands out as one of the few countries in Europe where 16-year-olds can buy alcohol. Additionally, we advocate for better enforcement of existing age limits.

 

As you mentioned, awareness about this link is low. How should this fact influence public health strategies in Denmark?

People have the right to know that alcohol increases the risk of cancer, so individuals can make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption. We cannot speak of free choice if people are not even aware that alcohol raises the risk of cancer and is unfamiliar with the National Board of Health's recommendations regarding alcohol consumption. Therefore, it is crucial to educate about the link between alcohol and cancer. Furthermore, effective policy measures are also needed.

 

Can you discuss any surprising trends or patterns that emerged from the survey, particularly those that deviate from previous research or expectations?

I believe the outcomes were as anticipated. Awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer appears to have increased slightly compared to previous years, as evidenced in the "Alcohol Habits in Denmark 2023" report.

 

Considering the work that the Danish Cancer Society has been doing on alcohol and cancer, what further research do you believe is necessary to continue advancing the understanding of the alcohol-cancer link? Are there particular areas within this field that you think require more focused study? 

I believe we possess a lot of knowledge, so the highest priority is to share this knowledge with the public and implement effective policy measures. However, it would also be relevant with more research regarding the following:

  • the association between alcohol consumption (after diagnosis) and cancer prognosis

  • the role of alcohol intake during youth and cancer risk later in life.

  • whether newly alcohol intake our accumulated alcohol intake plays the biggest role regarding cancer risk

 

Given the findings of your recent report, is the Cancer Society satisfied with the current low-risk drinking guidelines in Denmark, or do you believe there is a need for revision to better align with the latest research on alcohol and cancer risk?

We endorse the current drinking guidelines, which recommend a maximum of 10 weekly units (with 1 unit defined as 12 grams of alcohol). Adhering to these guidelines poses a low risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. However, for those seeking to minimize their cancer risk as much as possible, it is advisable to consume as little alcohol as feasible.

Campaign movie “Mental calculations”
It is based on the insight that many of us make mental calculations to justify to ourselves that we drink alcohol in various situations. The message in the film is that no matter how we twist and turn it - and no matter what mental calculations we have running in our heads – a unit of alcohol = a unit of alcohol. But if we stay below 10 items per week, as recommended by the Danish Health Authority, we have a low risk of getting cancer due to alcohol.

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