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We don't make this stuff up, alcohol is a proven killer

May 19, 2011

We don't make this stuff up, alcohol is a proven killer

When Cancer Council Australia published its recent estimate of the number of cancer cases in Australia linked to alcohol consumption, we didn't expect the message to be popular.

But we have a responsibility to provide independent, evidence-based information about cancer risk, enabling Australians to make informed choices.

Many people may not want to know that something as popular as alcohol consumption increases their cancer risk - but that's what the evidence says. And we believe everyone has a right to know about that evidence, whether it's a "good news" story or not.

We don't make this stuff up. It was the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, after analysing the major international epidemiological studies on cancer causation to an unprecedented extent, that concluded the risk of alcohol-related cancer increases with every alcoholic drink consumed.

Page 157 of the WCRF's most recent (2007), comprehensive report says: "The evidence does not show any 'safe limit' of intake." 

It is part of our role to apply this type of research to the Australian setting and make it public. We did so through an independent, expert committee, then had the analysis peer-reviewed by the Medical Journal of Australia - the nation's most prestigious medical journal.

When analysis that has passed this level of rigour shows such a strong relationship between cancer and a consumable carcinogen, we have a responsibility to disseminate the data.

We can't just do the popular things in cancer control - fund research into treatments, provide telephone support for patients and their families, advocate for improved patient support, run public education programs and so on - without also providing important (albeit for some, unwelcome) public information about cancer risk.

When Oxford University published findings from its Million Women Study (so named because of its unprecedented scale and scope) that even one glass of wine a day could increase breast cancer risk over the long term, it was greeted with derision.

The senior scientists involved probably expected this would occur - people enjoy their daily glass of wine after all - but that did not stop them from publishing the data.

Once published, it is up to individuals to make their own informed choices.

For context, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data that predates new evidence linking alcohol to bowel cancer in men shows more Australians die of alcohol-related cancer than from melanoma. We no longer attract widespread criticism for our "Slip, Slop, Slap" message, but it took some time for it to become socially acceptable.

People should be able to make their own decisions based on the evidence - even if the evidence is unpopular.