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Nearly HALF of North East adults are drinking enough alcohol to raise their risk of cancer

NEARLY one million adults in the North East (47%) could be drinking enough alcohol to increase their risk of some cancers, alarming new figures show. But only 1 in 3 North East adults is aware that alcohol increases the risk.

The figures come as Balance launches a campaign today (Oct 17) warning alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including breast, bowel, mouth and throat cancer.

In 2022 a new genetic study added to evidence that alcohol is a direct cause of cancer[ii]. And a separate study found alcohol damages DNA and accelerates the body’s ageing process, which is linked to age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and coronary artery disease.

The survey by Balance found 47% of adults in the North East are drinking above the Chief Medical Officer’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines of no more than 14 units per week. The guidance states: “You are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level. The risk of developing a range of illnesses (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.”

Supported by Cancer Research UK and North East local authorities, Balance’s “Alcohol Causes Cancer” campaign encourages people to cut down their alcohol consumption to reduce their risk of cancer and wider health harms. People are being encouraged to visit the website to find free tips and tools to cut down.

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance and Fresh, said: “We might not like to think that drinking alcohol increases our risk of cancer. But it is essential that we are aware of the link.

“It is hugely concerning that so many of us in the region are drinking above the low risk guidelines and home drinking is fuelling this. We know that during worrying times people can turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism and we are already seeing a devastating impact on our region’s health and frontline services, not least the NHS.

“The main aim of the campaign is to ensure that people are aware of the risks of drinking alcohol and to support them in cutting down. We know that half of people drinking over the guidelines are trying to take steps to manage their consumption – for example by taking days off alcohol - and this campaign will encourage even more North Easterners to reduce their risk of developing alcohol-related cancers.”

Dr James Crosbie a GP and consultant gastroenterologist with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust and Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria, said: “The fact is the more you drink alcohol, the more you increase your risk of developing cancer. But cutting down on alcohol can help to reduce that risk.

“People are often very surprised to learn the link between alcohol and very common cancers that many of us worry about, like bowel and breast cancer. And even moderate levels of drinking can increase those risks.”

He added: “It is alcohol itself that causes damage – whether wine, beer or spirits.

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: “As with COVID, the bulk of alcohol harm falls on the most deprived in our communities.

“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 action at national level to make a real difference.”

In 2019/20 there were almost 980,000 hospital admissions nationally where the primary reason or a secondary diagnosis was linked to alcohol – a 4% rise on 2018/19 (broad measure). This represents 5.7% of all hospital admissions and includes:

  • 435,000 admissions for cardiovascular disease

  • 227,000 admissions for mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol

  • 93,000 admissions due to cancer

  • 74,000 admissions for liver disease

2020 was a record year for alcohol deaths in England [iv] 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[v].

A major survey in the North East by Balance found rates of alcohol consumption are potentially storing up more health problems for the future:

  • 47% of adults, or an estimated 973,296 people are drinking above Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk guidelines of no more than 14 units a week.

  • Six out of ten men are drinking above the recommended limits

  • One in four NE drinkers (24%) admit to binge drinking at least weekly

  • The heaviest drinking age bracket is between 45-54 – 64% of people in this age group are drinking above recommended health limits

  • Even in retirement (65 plus), one in three (34%) of adults are drinking above the low risk limits

  • Over 1 in 3 people classes as increasing and higher risk drinkers say they are drinking more since the pandemic

  • 1 in 3 drinkers are drinking more at home since the pandemic; 1 in 5 are drinking less

  • Nearly half (47%) of North East drinkers are taking steps to manage their consumption with taking drink free days and being careful with the amount of alcohol they buy the most popular methods. Only 1 in 20 are using low alcohol products to cut down.

The North of England also has the worst rates of incidence of alcohol related cancers in England.

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.


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