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No safe level: public health message targets moderate drinkers September 2016, Volume 26, Issue 4

Nyssa Skilton

Published 30 September 2016. doi:
Citation: Skilton N. No safe level: public health message targets moderate drinkers. Public Health Res Pract. 2016;26(4):e2641652.

  • Citation

New UK guidelines stress that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, in a shift to warn light to moderate drinkers about cancer risks.

The guidelines from the UK Chief Medical Officers state that the net benefits from small amounts of alcohol are less than previously thought and that drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing a range of cancers, including cancers of the mouth and throat, large bowel, liver and breast cancer.

“These risks start from any level of regular drinking and then rise with the amounts of alcohol being drunk,” said the guidelines, which were published in August.

Balancing the risk

Professor Sanchia Aranda, Cancer Council Australia Chief Executive Officer, said the new UK recommendations had now come into line with Australia’s guidelines, which were published in 2009.

However, what differentiated the guidelines was that the UK advice was the same for men and women, and the guidelines also suggested having some alcohol-free days each week.

“What’s really important about the recommendation is they concur with ours in the sense they talk about safer levels of alcohol. We would concur alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen, but everyone balances their lifestyle factors with their own risks,” she said.

“Obviously it’s unrealistic to expect that people will give up alcohol completely.”

However Professor Aranda said it was important for the public to understand the magnitude of the risk associated with drinking alcohol.

Last year, Cancer Council Australia published research that found 3208 cancers, or 2.8% of all cancers, diagnosed in Australian adults in 2010 could be attributed to alcohol consumption. In comparison, an estimated 15 525 cancers were caused by tobacco smoke, 7220 melanomas were caused by dangerous sun exposure and 3917 were caused by overweight and obesity.

Public health campaigns

In this issue of Public Health Research & Practice, researchers question whether giving someone information about their genetic susceptibility to alcohol-related cancers may motivate them to change their drinking behaviour.

Public health organisations are now increasingly working to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer.

Cancer Council NSW is about to launch a cancer prevention campaign, which will focus on the message that individuals can substantially reduce their risk of developing cancer by having a healthy lifestyle, which includes limiting alcohol consumption. And in Western Australia, the Alcohol.Think Again Alcohol and Cancer education campaign has, since 2014, warned that alcohol can cause cancer and there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Professor Steve Allsop, from the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University in Western Australia, said many people underestimated the risks of alcohol consumption.

“What I think needs to happen is we need to recognise that alcohol is a drug, something many of us can and do enjoy, but which has the potential for great harm,” he said.

“Alcohol is a drug – it’s not an ordinary product – and our public health and other policies need to treat it in that way.”

Getting the right message across

Julia Stafford, the Executive Officer of the McCuster Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, said the public had “clung very tightly” to the old, disproved health messages that there was some evidence to show benefits to drinking small amounts of alcohol.

“We slowly need to chip away at those,” she said.

“We already do have a message and evidence to support the fact that there is no safe level of drinking. We have our Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from alcohol, and they are about supporting lower risk drinking.

“Our messages need to be believable and convincing and credible, and they’re always going to be challenged by commercial interests.”