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Balance and the NHS launch new alcohol and cancer campaign

Sue Taylor

Sue Taylor

Posted 08/11/21

Only 1 in 3 North East adults are aware that alcohol can cause cancer. But alarming figures reveal that four out 10 people (around 855,000 people) are drinking enough to significantly raise their risks .

The figures come as Balance and the NHS launch a major campaign in the North East and North Cumbria (Nov 8) to warn alcohol can cause at least seven types of cancer, including breast, bowel, mouth and throat cancer. Supported by Cancer Research UK and North East local authorities, the “Alcohol Causes Cancer” campaign encourages people to cut down to reduce their risk.

2020 was a record year for alcohol deaths in England with the worst rates in the North East. And separate cancer figures show 3,145 people in the North East were diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer between 2016-18 .

A major survey in the North East by Balance - thought to be the largest in-depth study of alcohol consumption in any English region during the pandemic – found rates of alcohol consumption are potentially storing up more health problems for the future:

• 4 in10 adults, or an estimated 855,000 people, and six out of 10 men, were drinking above Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk guidelines of no more than 14 units a week. Heavier drinkers were most likely to have increased their drinking.
• Heavy drinking was highest amongst 45 to 54 year olds; almost one in two people in this age group were drinking above low risk limits.
• Even in retirement (65 plus), one in three adults were drinking above the low risk limits.

People are being encouraged to visit the website to find free tips and tools to cut down, including downloading the free Try Dry app.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of at least 7 different types of cancer. This includes breast and bowel cancer (two of the most common types), mouth cancer.
some types of throat cancer: oesophagus (food pipe), larynx (voice box), and pharynx (upper throat), and liver cancer.

Dr James Crosbie a GP and consultant gastroenterologist with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It might come as a shock but alcohol is a class one carcinogen, like tobacco and asbestos, and a well-established cause of cancer, including some very common cancers of the breast and bowel, mouth, throat and liver.

“We know that the more you drink, the greater the risk. However, you don’t have to be a heavy drinker - even just one drink a day can increase the risk of some types of cancer.

“It doesn’t matter what type of alcohol you drink – it is alcohol itself that causes the damage, whether wine beer or spirits. And unlike age, gender and family history, alcohol is one risk factor that we can change, control and do something positive about.”

Dr Crosbie is also Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System and added: “This campaign is an important step - people have a right to know about the harm that alcohol can cause in order to make informed decisions. Cutting down can bring immediate and long term benefits and reduce the risks of a variety of health conditions, not least cancer.”

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh and Balance, warned: “The North East saw the highest death rates from alcohol in England during 2020. And heavier drinking is storing up even more health problems, which will be seen in hospitals and communities in years to come.

“It is particularly worrying that we are seeing such high rates of drinking, especially in men and people in their 40s and 50s. We know many people would like to drink less, but this campaign gives a really important reason to cut down.”

Alice Wiseman is Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol and Drugs Lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health. She said: “It is a positive and important step for the NHS and local authorities to come together to prioritise alcohol prevention and launch this campaign. As with COVID, the bulk of alcohol harm falls on the most deprived in our communities.

“Most of us have lost someone to cancer, but unlike smoking we often overlook the risks of alcohol. We don’t see warnings on the bottle or can, and we don’t see national advertising campaigns informing people about the risks.

“Raising 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.”

The North of England also has the worst rates of incidence of alcohol related cancers in England, with 39.67 cases per 100,000 people in the North East, 38.46 cases per 100,000 people in Yorkshire and the Humber, and 41.22 cases per 100,000 people in the North West between 2016-18.

As well as cancer, 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.

Alcohol Causes Cancer” is being funded by all 12 local authority public health teams in the North East, with substantial NHS funding from the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System, which will enable advertising to run on television.