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Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk Underestimated by French Population, Study Finds


01.03.2023 - The National Cancer Institute, in partnership with Santé publique France, has released the results of the 4th Cancer Barometer on World Cancer Day, celebrated on 4th February every year. This Barometer is conducted every five years and provides an insight into the attitudes and behaviors of the French people towards cancer. It is a tool for steering prevention policies and is also useful for devising differentiated practices for specific populations. The survey has been carried out every 5 years since 2005, with the latest data collected in 2021 from nearly 5,000 people aged between 15 and 85.


The aim of the Cancer Barometer is to document inequalities in health and guide individual behavior towards improving prevention and fighting against inequalities. However, the results indicate that although the French feel well informed about cancer, their perceptions of risk factors, particularly avoidable risk factors, are not always based on scientific knowledge. For instance, the French tend to cite psychological factors, such as stress and traumatic experiences, as risk factors for cancer, even though there is no scientific proof of this link.


The Barometer also highlights a form of distancing of individual risk according to one's own behavior, where people who smoke place themselves at less risk than non-smokers, and people who consume alcohol cite it less spontaneously as a cancer risk factor than abstainers. The results also reveal differences in perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes according to both the level of education and income of the French. For instance, the least educated people are less likely to perceive the risks of cancer linked to smoking, while women with the lowest incomes report less participation in cervical cancer screening, even though this screening is essential for women's health care.


Furthermore, the data reveal that some preconceived ideas persist or even increase compared to the previous edition of the Cancer Barometer. For instance, the statement that "cancer is hereditary" is strongly approved by people with less than a baccalaureate, which indicates the issue of literacy (the motivation and skills of individuals to access, understand, evaluate, and use information to make decisions about their health).


The chapter devoted to the perception of cancers and cancer risk factors was enriched by additional investigations that took into account the conclusions of the previous Cancer Barometer. The aim was to understand the choice of people proposing answers that were not expected. The perception of risk factors was analyzed in a double approach, where it was collected spontaneously, and through the proposal of a list of proven or unproven risk factors.


Regarding tobacco and alcohol, the first two avoidable risk factors for cancer, the questions focused on the link between them and cancer. The results show that people hold misconceptions that distance themselves from risks. For instance, around half of the people believe that playing sports helps clear the lungs of tobacco. Daily alcohol consumers consider themselves more informed about the cancer risks associated with its consumption than abstainers, and the link between alcohol and cancer is underestimated, especially among alcohol consumers.


The majority of the French population thinks that some people can consume alcohol without ever getting cancer, while only half of the population is aware that one glass of alcohol per day increases the risk of cancer. Additionally, around a quarter of the population believes that drinking a little wine reduces the risk of cancer. These figures reveal that the harmful effects of risky alcohol consumption on health and its link to cancer are not well-known, despite being scientifically established.


Furthermore, the impact of alcohol consumption on cancer is underestimated by individuals with a lower level of education than a high school diploma. They are more likely to believe that road accidents and violence are the main risks associated with alcohol consumption.


The National Cancer Institute, in partnership with Santé publique France, recently unveiled the results of the 4th Cancer Barometer in France. Conducted every five years since 2005, the Cancer Barometer is a general population survey that provides insight into French people's attitudes and behaviors towards cancer. The latest edition of the survey collected data in 2021 from nearly 5,000 individuals aged between 15 and 85. This Barometer is a valuable tool for steering prevention policies and is also useful for devising differentiated practices for specific populations. All factors studied contribute to guiding individual behavior in terms of health.


While the French report feeling well informed about cancer, the survey results show that their perceptions of cancer risk factors are not always based on scientific knowledge. For example, the link between psychological factors and cancer (i.e. stress, traumatic experiences) is often cited as a risk factor, although there is no proven scientific evidence of this link. The survey also shows a form of distancing of individual risk according to one's own behavior. For example, for tobacco, the leading avoidable risk factor for cancer, one smoker in two places at least one of the danger thresholds (i.e. the number of cigarettes smoked per day or the number of years of smoking) above their own consumption.


Furthermore, the results of the survey highlight differences in perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes according to both the level of education and income of the French population. For example, the least educated individuals are less likely to perceive the risks of cancer linked to smoking. In terms of screening, women with the lowest incomes report less participation in cervical cancer screening. These data highlight the issue of literacy and the importance of developing information and intervention mechanisms to reduce inequalities.


The survey also reveals that some misconceptions persist or even increase compared to the previous edition of the Cancer Barometer. For example, the statement that "cancer is hereditary" is strongly approved by people with less than a baccalaureate. Additionally, the impact of alcohol consumption on cancer is underestimated, especially among individuals with lower levels of education. The majority of the French population (80%) believes that some people can consume alcohol without ever getting cancer, while only half of the population is aware that one glass of alcohol per day increases the risk of cancer.


In conclusion, the Cancer Barometer is an essential tool for documenting inequalities in health and allows us to better understand the opinions, perceptions, and behaviors of the French on cancer. The data from this survey enables the evaluation and improvement of public health policies in the fight against cancer. The survey results highlight the importance of developing information and intervention mechanisms to support individuals in being well-informed and to reduce or even eliminate health inequalities.


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