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Working to reduce alcohol-related cancer risk

The best way to reduce the impact of cancer in Australia is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. By changing behaviour and lifestyle people can greatly reduce their risk of a cancer diagnosis.

People think of research in terms of how to treat cancer and find out its causes but the things that people can do  every day to reduce their risk of cancer are extremely important."

Clare Hughes
Chair, Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, Cancer Council Australia

Helping people understand how to prevent cancer by reducing alcohol use was the focus of a national research project conducted on behalf of Cancer Council , VicHealth and the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) drafted new guidelines intended to support Australians to reduce the health risks associated with alcohol. Alcohol is a Class 1 carcinogen and any amount of alcohol increases the risk of seven types of cancer with risk increasing with higher levels of use. The question for the research team was: ‘How are people going to interpret the draft guidelines and will it encourage a change in behaviour that helps to reduce alcohol-related cancers?’

Led by Craig Sinclair (Cancer Council Victoria) and Clare Hughes (Cancer Council New South Wales), MMResearch were commissioned to undertake qualitative research with members of the community to explore public reactions to the draft guidelines, with a primary focus on Guideline 1:

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. For some people not drinking at all is the safest option.

A series of 14 focus groups were conducted in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth with the aim of seeing how people would respond to and interpret the recommendations, and how effectively it would encourage people to reduce their alcohol use. At the same time, we sought to gain insights into what people were thinking around reducing alcohol use, the role of government in reducing alcohol intake, and awareness of the link with cancer.

Among the participants, awareness of existing guidelines varied considerably and understanding about drinking recommendations was quite vague. Often people thought about recommended levels of alcohol intake in terms of the driving blood alcohol regulations and how to stay under the legal driving limit. 

The findings confirmed that the draft guidelines were open to interpretation and confusing for members of the public. Some people saw the guidelines as recommending a reduction in the amount of alcohol being used, while others believed that the guidelines were an increase on safe levels of drinking. Many participants interpreted the draft guidelines as endorsing alcohol use consistent with their existing drinking patterns. While participants understood the risk of both short and long-term harm, it was mostly associated with accidents, injuries and violence, rather than chronic disease including cancer.

Additionally, participants viewed this information as a guideline only, and therefore interpreted it as being a suggestion of what they should do most of the time, rather than all the time. There was also confusion as to what constitutes a ‘standard’ drink.

Research such as this helps to inform Cancer Council about the ways long-term risks are communicated, with the intention of improving communications to make them more meaningful, motivating and encouraging people to think about reducing their alcohol intake.

This research is a perfect example of  how important it is that we get the messaging right when it comes to encouraging people to reduce their cancer risk, getting over the barrier that everything causes cancer or ‘there’s nothing I can do to stop myself getting cancer’."

Clare Hughes
Chair, Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, Cancer Council Australia

Most people associate Cancer Council with cancer diagnosis and treatment, but we are in a unique position as a trusted, evidence-based organisation to make the community better aware of prevention of, and screening for, cancer.

Cancer Council also makes a significant contribution to nutrition and alcohol policy in Australia.

Undertaking strategic research that helps to inform policy development and brings the community’s voice into that is often the missing piece of the puzzle. Cancer Council continues to provide consumer research so that we can help deliver effective regulation and policy that protects public health and prevents cancer.

People are getting the message with tobacco and sun protection. Now we need to do the same when it comes to healthy eating, physical activity, alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight."

Clare Hughes
Chair, Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, Cancer Council Australia