Drinking blind – new research highlights gaps in drinkers’ knowledge of the alcohol and cancer link

May, 2021 - New Cancer Council Victoria (Australia) research has revealed most Victorian adults who drink are not aware of many of the types of cancer caused by alcohol, with less than two out of ten identifying alcohol as a cause of breast cancer and fewer than three in ten aware that alcohol causes mouth cancer and throat cancer.

This is despite evidence that alcohol consumption causes nearly 3,500 Australians to develop cancer each year, with clear evidence that drinking alcohol increases people’s risk of at least seven types of cancer including breast, liver, mouth, throat (pharynx and larynx), oesophagus and bowel cancers.

Cancer Council’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer surveyed 1500 Victorians who drank alcohol at least 2-3 times a month in February-March 2020. When asked about their knowledge of the health risks of alcohol use, cancer was top-of-mind as a potential health risk for only 19 per cent of respondents.

When prompted about the specific health conditions associated with alcohol consumption, including various types of cancer, knowledge was still low:

  • Only 18 per cent believed that alcohol can cause breast cancer.

  • 26 per cent believed that alcohol can cause throat cancer.

  • 26 per cent believed that alcohol can cause mouth cancer.

  • Less than half (46 per cent) believed that alcohol can cause bowel cancer.

More drinkers were aware of the link between alcohol and liver cancer (85%), although 15% were still unsure about this link.

Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria CEO, said the research highlights that we still have a long way to go in raising awareness that alcohol causes cancer, despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying alcohol as a group one carcinogen over 30 years ago.

“Alcohol is a group one carcinogen, yet many Victorians who drink have limited awareness of just how many different types of cancer can be caused by alcohol.

Mr Harper announced that Cancer Council Victoria is running a campaign featuring the advertisement ‘Spread’ across digital channels in Victoria from this week to help raise this awareness, and educate people about new National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines on alcohol consumption introduced late last year.

“The NHMRC recommends that healthy men and women drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week to reduce their risk of cancer and other serious diseases. We hope that our ‘Spread’ campaign will go a long way to not only educating Victorians about the fact that alcohol causes cancer, but also guiding them on low-risk drinking levels,” Mr Harper said.

First developed in 2010 in Western Australia, the advertisement ‘Spread’ shows how alcohol increases the risk of cells mutating when it spreads through the body. A Cancer Council Victoria study published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open in 2017 ranked ‘Spread’ as the most effective advertisement globally for motivating drinkers to cut back on the amount of alcohol they consume. The campaign will run from May 30 across digital advertising and social media.

Specialist breast cancer surgeon, Dr Chantel Thornton, who specialises in the surgical treatment of breast cancer and preventative breast cancer surgery said the prevention message was extremely important and one that she discusses with her patients every day.

“There are many ways we can reduce our cancer risk through lifestyle changes and reducing alcohol consumption is one of the most important. Every day I talk to my patients about the impact that alcohol, along with other factors like diet, exercise and cigarette smoking, can have on their health. They are often surprised to learn that alcohol intake, particularly between first menstruating to first pregnancy, increases their risk of developing breast cancer later in life,” Dr Thornton said. People who want to know more about the link between alcohol and cancer and want tips to reduce their drinking are encouraged to visit http://www.cancervic.org.au/alcohol for tips, tools and support.


ABOUT THIS RESEARCH

In February-March 2020, Cancer Council Victoria commissioned the Social Research Centre to survey 1500 Victorian adults (aged 25-69 years) who reported drinking alcohol at least 2-3 times per month in the past year. Participants were surveyed via mobile phones, and all data were weighted to be representative of the Victorian population. The response rate for this population survey was 6.2%. Participants were asked a range of questions about their alcohol-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

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