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2 in 5 drinkers in the North East admit they feel at risk of cancer

Sue Taylor

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh and Balance

Posted 31/01/22

2 in 5 drinkers in the North East admit they feel at risk of cancer as a result of their drinking. But nearly half who saw a hard hitting alcohol cancer awareness campaign took steps towards cutting down.

Balance say more awareness and action is needed nationally to reduce the harm of alcohol as it revealed the results of a survey of 700 people. The survey results come as Balance launches the next phase of its “Alcohol Causes Cancer” campaign from Monday 31 January.

A Newcastle University study has found that heavier drinkers and poorer households in the North were more likely to increase alcohol buying during the pandemic, with 2020 a record year for alcohol deaths. Separate figures also show 3,145 people in the North East were diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer between 2016 and 2018.

Health campaigners say now is a key moment for the Government to tackle alcohol harm nationally which cannot be lost. They are urging the government to use a review on alcohol duty which closed this week to tackle the scourge of cheap alcohol and for higher strength drinks like super-strength cider to be taxed more.

They are also calling for health information on alcohol products to fill a gap around low public awareness. To be truly effective, these measures should be embedded as part of a comprehensive, evidence-based, national strategy, which tackles all elements of alcohol harm.

84% of people who saw the recent Alcohol Causes Cancer campaign in November said it is important to have health campaigns on the risks - while nearly half (46%) said they took action as a result, including:
• 17% cut down how often they drink
• 13% cut down how much they drink
• 13% began monitoring alcohol units
• 29% also felt like they should take part in Dry January as a result

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “Liver disease and alcohol related cancers are on the rise and yet compared to tobacco, awareness of the health risks are low. We believe people have a right to know that alcohol is harmful and it is important they get this information to make informed choices.

“The last two years have seen an alcohol crisis - cheap alcohol with the terrible anxieties of Covid resulted in millions more drinking at risky levels, problems for families and heavy use turning into dependency. Alcohol drives massive health inequality - we see the worst harms here in the North East and cheap prices are fuelling this.

“We urgently need action at a national level to tackle this. Campaigns like ‘alcohol causes cancer’ can help but are a drop in the ocean compared to the massive advertising budgets of alcohol companies. We need evidence-based action to tackle the price, promotion and availability of alcohol, before millions more families suffer.”

Dr James Crosbie a GP and consultant gastroenterologist with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Too many patients are now presenting with alcohol related liver disease or alcohol related cancers like breast, bowel, mouth and throat, or putting themselves at greater risk through their drinking.

“We know that the more you drink, the greater the risk. And unlike age, gender and family history, alcohol is one risk factor that we can change, control and do something positive about.”

Alice Wiseman is Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol and Drugs Lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health. She said: “Most of us have lost someone to cancer, but unlike smoking we often overlook the risks of alcohol. We don’t see health information on the product or in national advertising campaigns. Instead we see cheap strong alcohol allowed to destroy health and lives.

“We can see people want clear information on alcohol – the type drinks companies aren’t giving them. Awareness through this campaign is a positive step, but not a silver bullet. Alcohol is still far too cheap, far too available and far too heavily promoted and we need a comprehensive, evidence-based alcohol strategy to make a real difference.”

2020 was a record year for alcohol deaths - the worst rates in the North East - and doctors nationwide have warned of a mounting alcohol crisis.

Newcastle University examined Kantar shopping data from 80,000 households and found that Britain’s heaviest drinkers - those in the top fifth of households that would consistently purchase the most alcohol - bought around 17 times more from shops and supermarkets than the bottom fifth during the lockdown period between March and July 2020. Households in the North were buying more but the increase in Scotland and Wales - which both have a Minimum Unit Price for alcohol - was less.


30 January sees the closure of a Government review on how alcohol is taxed and which seeks to “radically simplify” the alcohol duty system by taxing all products according to their strength.

The current alcohol duty system is outdated, with different products taxed at different rates. For example, while beer and cider are taxed according to their strength, wine and cider are taxed according to the volume of liquid – which means that stronger products incur less tax per unit.

Balance and the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) are calling for a strength-based tax system to ensure that higher strength products associated with more risk - like strong cider - are taxed more, and that new alcohol duty rates can make a difference to public health.

Campaigners are also calling for a Minimum Unit Price on Alcohol. Alcohol harm is closely linked to price. Minimum unit pricing works by targeting the cheapest and strongest products on the market without impacting prices in pubs and bars. At the moment, a 2.5 litre bottle of cider containing 19 units of alcohol can be purchased for as little at £3.59 in England.


The government is due imminently to consult on alcohol health and nutritional labelling in a review which was first announced back in 2020.

The Alcohol Health Alliance and Balance have that highlighted that alcohol harm is poorly understood by drinkers and argued that labels should include the Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines, pregnancy warnings, drink-drive warnings and cancer warnings.

The risks

It is estimated that 4 in10 adults in the North East are drinking above Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk guidelines of no more than 14 units per week, raising the risk of various medical conditions, including cancer.

Even small amounts of alcohol, drunk regularly, can increase the risk of cancer. And any type of alcohol can cause cancer... whether it is wine, beer or spirits.

Drinking regularly can also damage the liver and raise our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and stroke. It can lead to us gaining weight and increase the risk of anxiety and depression.

The best ways to reduce your risk are to cut down and take more drink free days. Visit for tips and free tools such as the free Try Dry app to track your units, calories and money saved when you cut down or cut out alcohol.