Irish men are at an increased risk of cancer and their drinking habits are part of the problem

The latest report on cancer in Ireland contains a telling quote about our attitude to alcohol:

“Despite the attempts to combat excess alcohol intake through policy… it is clear that the general population underestimates, ignores or is unaware of the risks.”

[wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=158 linktext=’The Excess Burden of Cancer Among Men’ /], a report commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society, shows once again the cancer risks posed by alcohol consumption.

Published during Men’s Health Week, the report says that projections indicate that between 2005 and 2035 the overall number of invasive cancers is to increase by 213%, or 7% annually, for men compared to 165%, or 6% annually, for women.

We know that a lot of this increase in cancer rates is being driven by lifestyle choices, such as smoking, physical inactivity, poor diets and, of course, alcohol use.

A recent study on the impact of alcohol consumption on cancer cases in eight European countries reported that up to 10% of all cancers in men and 3% in women may be attributed to alcohol consumption.

In Ireland, men are approximately twice as likely as women to report drinking over their low-risk weekly limit and also to binge drink, thereby putting themselves at a much greater risk of alcohol-related cancers than their female counterparts.

Because alcohol consumption is higher among those from poorer backgrounds, their risk for alcohol-related cancers is also higher. The National Cancer Registry has noted the correlation between higher incidence of head and neck cancers and lung cancer among Irish men living in socio-economically deprived areas and the corresponding higher rates of alcohol consumption and tobacco use in these areas.

So what can we do about it?

The answer, as pointed out by Alcohol Action Ireland earlier this year, is straightforward: if we reduce our drinking we reduce our cancer risk.

The good news is that alcohol is not only one of the key risk factors for cancer – it’s also one of the most preventable causes of cancer. If we drink less, the risk is reduced. The less we drink, the more we reduce the risk. It sounds relatively simple, but then, as the report reminded us, we tend to underestimate, ignore or be unaware of the risks involved with our drinking.

The responsibility to tackle our alcohol consumption does not fall solely on the individual and if we are to seriously address our many alcohol-related harms, including cancer, in this country then we need to act in the best interests of the public’s health. And to do that, we need our Government, our legislators, to lead the way.

In this regard, The Excess Burden of Cancer Among Men report makes a number of recommendations around alcohol use:

 ·                 The recommendations of the Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy should be implemented in full with a particular focus on applying a gender lens across the four key pillars: ’Supply, Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation and Research

 ·                 The recommendations from the Strategic Taskforce on Alcohol should be implemented in full with a particular focus on applying a gender lens across the ten key strategy areas. There should be a specific focus on raising men’s awareness of the risks associated with the development of alcohol related cancers

 ·                 Increase efforts to reduce alcohol consumption in male sub-populations with high prevalence of alcohol consumption, particularly lower socio-economic groups

It is clear that if we are to reduce the levels of cancer in Ireland and save many lives in the process, we need to take decisive action to reduce our alcohol consumption and the best way to do that is for our Government to tackle the pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol by implementing the recommendations of the Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy.

The debate about which of these recommendations to include in our national alcohol strategy is currently continuing both within Government and wider society, with the proposals to curb alcohol marketing, in particular, the focus of much attention, as well as intense lobbying from the alcohol industry, which is using all its financial and political clout to protect its bottom line.

However, in the context of alcohol and cancer and the report just published, it’s worth asking the following question: if the role of marketing, including advertising and sponsorship, in relation to tobacco is recognised and addressed with strict legislation, then why are the rules so difficult for alcohol? After all, three people die every day from an alcohol-related illness in this country.

It’s time we started taking the risks seriously.