Participants in Dry January avoid equivalent of 60 cigarettes as far as cancer risk is concerned

An average drinker completing Dry January will have avoided the equivalent of 60 cigarettes (three packets) as far as cancer risk is concerned, according to estimates of the cancer risks of alcohol compared to cigarettes.

The estimate was calculated by Dr Theresa Hydes, a gastroenterology registrar from University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust and co-author of a new paper published in the RCP’s journal Clinical Medicine this week.

Dr Hydes calculated the reduction in risk for people taking part in dry January:*

'On average, women in the UK drink two units of alcohol a day and therefore consume the equivalent as far as cancer risk is concerned of 60 cigarettes a month. Meanwhile, men drink an average of four units a day and therefore also consume the equivalent as far as cancer risk is concerned of 60 cigarettes a month. This is based on the estimate that 10 units of alcohol carries the equivalent cancer risk of 10 cigarettes for women and five for men.'

The paper ‘Exploring the gap in the public's understanding of the links between alcohol and cancer’, co-written by Dr Theresa Hydes, Professor Roger Williams and Professor Nick Sheron, explores the reasons for the gap in public understanding that alcohol causes cancer. Cancer affects one in two of us and kills one in four, yet 25% of cancers are lifestyle related and therefore potentially preventable. Along with smoking and obesity, alcohol is one of the leading preventable causes of cancer in the UK. Regular alcohol consumption increases an individual's risk of developing at least seven types of cancer: cancer of the throat, voice box, mouth, gullet, liver, bowel and breast. The more you drink the greater the risk, however even low levels of alcohol consumption carry some increase in risk, particularly for breast cancer.

Only 13-54% of the public are aware of this association however, a huge contrast to smoking. Reasons for this 'gap' are likely to include industry-related factors, predominantly unregulated alcohol advertising funded by huge marketing budgets, increased affordability and increased availability, creating an ‘alcogenic’ environment with a lack of regulation unthinkable for smoking. The ubiquitous nature of these adverts and increased availability of alcohol, subtlety endorses these products and conflicts with campaigns highlighting alcohol-related harm.

In an attempt to find a novel way of communicating the alcohol-related cancer risks to the public, the researchers recently aimed to harness embedded public knowledge about the risks of smoking and cancer and use this as a ‘yard-stick’, asking the question: ‘As far as cancer risk is concerned, how many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?’ The team estimated that for women the risk of drinking 10 units of alcohol per week (about one bottle of wine) is approximately equivalent to 10 cigarettes per week, and five for men. The gender difference results from the fact that the risk of breast cancer is significantly high even at low levels of alcohol consumption. (https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6576-9).

Only 15% of UK adults now smoke thanks to the introduction of a series of effective government sanctions, however 60% drink regularly and 64% are overweight or obese. The researchers believe that it is therefore vital that we do more to regulate these industries and work to close the gap in the public’s understanding of these preventable causes of cancer. By making the statistics more relatable to smoking, the authors hope to close the gap.

Read the paper in full online.

* Average alcohol consumption for female drinkers in UK 2.0 U/day (62 units Jan) = 6 bottles wine = equivalent of 60 cigarettes (10 cigs/bottle). Average alcohol consumption for male drinkers in UK 4.0 U/day (124 units Jan) = 12 bottles wine = equivalent of 60 cigarettes (5 cigs/bottle)

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Alcohol