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5000 alcohol-related cancer deaths could be prevented every year by doubling alcohol taxes

An estimated 10 700 new cancer cases and 4850 alcohol-related cancer deaths could be avoided annually in the WHO European Region by doubling current excise duties on alcoholic beverages.

The United Kingdom, the Russian Federation and Germany – which together account for nearly 40% of all potential lives saved – would be among the main winners of this economic measure.

These are some key results of the new WHO study “Modelling the impact of increased alcohol taxation on alcohol-attributable cancers in the WHO European Region”, published in the Lancet Regional Health – Europe.

“In 2020, more than 4.8 million people in the WHO European Region developed cancer,” said Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases and one of the authors of the study.

“The rate of cancer in the Region is the highest in the world, and high levels of alcohol consumption contribute to this. Alcohol is linked to 7 different types of cancer. The good news is that in Europe, up to 40% of cancers could be prevented, and we have many opportunities to defeat cancer as a life-threatening disease in the near future.”

Dr Ferreira-Borges added, “The new WHO modelling study shows that taxation can effectively reduce the burden of alcohol-related cancers. Doubling current alcohol excises in the WHO European Region can help us avoid around 6% of new cancer cases and deaths linked to alcohol consumption.”

The authors of the study created a model for 3 scenarios in which current excise duties on alcoholic beverages were increased by 20%, 50% or 100%. Cancer data from 2019 were gathered from 50 (of 53) countries in the European Region.

Avoidable cancer: country results

According to the study, based on a doubling of current excise duties, the highest total numbers of potentially avoidable alcohol-related cancer cases and deaths were in the following countries:

United Kingdom – more than 1800 avoidable cases (10.9% of new cases) and 680 avoidable deaths (10.9% of deaths);

Russian Federation – more than 1400 avoidable cases (5.4% of new cases) and 725 avoidable deaths (5.0% of deaths); and

Germany – more than 1250 avoidable cases (4.9% of new cases) and 525 avoidable deaths (4.8% of deaths).

Another view of the data shows countries with the highest proportion of new alcohol-related cancer cases and deaths that could be avoided. With stricter excise tax policies, the following countries could prevent the highest percentage of their cancer harms attributable to alcohol compared to other countries the Region:

Norway – 23.7% of new cases (162 avoidable cases) and 23.8% of deaths (60 avoidable deaths);

Armenia – 16.9% of new cases (22 avoidable cases) and 16.8% of deaths (13 avoidable deaths); and

Iceland – 14.3% of new cases (5 avoidable cases) and 14.2% of deaths (2 avoidable deaths).

Types of alcohol-related cancer that can be prevented

Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and is causally linked to oral cavity, pharynx, oesophagus, colorectal, liver, larynx and female breast cancer.

With a doubling of current alcohol excise duties, the largest reductions were estimated for female breast and colorectal cancer. More than 1000 women’s lives could potentially be saved from breast cancer, and 1700 men’s and women’s lives from colorectal cancer.

Policies against alcohol-related cancer: what works?

Dr Jürgen Rehm, another author of the study, is Senior Scientist in the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, and Member of the Advisory Council on Innovation for Noncommunicable Diseases of WHO/Europe.

Dr Rehm explained: “Today, in many of the countries of the WHO European Region, current levels of taxation remain low, particularly within the European Union. That’s why WHO/Europe recommends increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages as one of the best measures with potentially high impact.”

He added, “Implementing these policies will lead to positive results in every country that wants to improve the health of their people. With the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan of the European Commission and its commitment to review European Union legislation on alcohol taxation, there is a clear window of opportunity for action.”

Increasing alcohol excise duties is one of WHO’s best buys – policy measures that cost-effectively reduce alcohol use and the alcohol-attributable health burden. The measure is part of the WHO/Europe’s United Action Against Cancer movement, with a long-term vision to eliminate cancer as a life-threatening disease.

Other best buy policies include:

enacting and enforcing restrictions on the physical availability of retailed alcohol, for example, via reduced hours of sale; and

enacting and enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to alcohol advertising (across multiple types of media).

Source: WHO Europe

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