Western Australian Cancer Prevention Research Unit (WACPRU), Curtin University

Drinking ourselves sick

In a heavy drinking culture such as Australia, it is difficult to convince drinkers that alcohol is toxic. Over three decades ago, alcohol was classified as a category one carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. This means the alcohol-cancer link in humans is certain, and hence that individuals should take appropriate preventive action. However, alcohol intake levels in Australia are still high and the task remains to convince drinkers that alcohol consumption increases their risk of cancer and other diseases and thus that they should reduce their intake.

In collaboration with Cancer Council WA, WACPRU has investigated Australian drinkers’ current alcohol-related beliefs, including their understanding of the alcohol-cancer link. The study also assessed the extent to which heavier drinkers understand that they are at increased risk of alcohol-related harm relative to their peers who drink more moderately. More than 2000 adult drinkers from around the country participated in an online survey that asked them to report their alcohol consumption levels and tested their understanding of the relationship between alcohol and the following diseases: cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and liver damage. The results indicated that two-thirds of the sample were aware of the association between liver damage and alcohol consumption, but only around half were aware of the association between alcohol and the other diseases. Cancer had the lowest level of awareness, indicating that this should be a particular area of attention in future health communications.

When the self-reported alcohol consumption levels of the survey respondents were compared to the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines for low-risk drinking, 80% reported intake levels above the high-risk thresholds for short and/or long-term alcohol related harm (i.e. more than four drinks on a single occasion or an average of more than two drinks per day). Of these high-risk drinkers, just over half did not consider their drinking to be harmful. This outcome highlights the need to ensure all drinkers are aware of current alcohol consumption guidelines and are able to compare their own intake to these guidelines to better understand their level of risk. The extent to which alcohol is embedded in Australian culture means that drinkers are unlikely to be receptive to such information, making it essential for messages to be carefully developed and tested prior to dissemination. A further complicating factor is that alcohol harm minimisation messages are countered by extensive alcohol advertising. Alcohol advertisements are carefully crafted to depict alcohol consumption as a highly enjoyable and socially rewarding experience. High levels of alcohol-related harm in the community combined with the low levels of understanding of the long-term health risks associated with alcohol consumption demonstrated in this study suggest that drinkers should be exposed to fewer messages from the alcohol industry and more messages informing them of the association between alcohol and diseases such as cancer.
This results of this study have been published in Addiction Research & Theory. The study was funded by the Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation.  

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