There are many well-known health risks associated with alcohol consumption. Globally, it is one of the leading risk factors for illness, disability, and death. While the increased risk of conditions such as liver disease, cardiovascular disease and pancreatitis are well known, reports have shown that public awareness of the causal link between alcohol and cancer is less known. Almost 17,000 new cancer cases in the UK were linked to alcohol in 2020 –around 46 new diagnoses a day.

Alcohol has been causally linked to several types of cancer.  Our Global Cancer Update Programme (CUP Global) – the world’s largest and most authoritative source of up-to-date research on the links between diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer – analysed the effect of alcohol on cancer risk. It found strong evidence that alcohol increases the risk of developing seven types of cancer: mouth, throat, oesophageal, breast, stomach, bowel, and liver. The Global Cancer Update Programme found no threshold for which there was no risk for some cancers, such as breast, meaning there is no safe level of consumption. The risk of developing other types of cancer substantially increased with two or more drinks a day.

WCRF recommends limiting alcohol consumption and ideally not drinking alcohol at all to reduce your cancer risk. Cutting down on alcohol intake can also help improve general health. The UK government recommends that men and women should aim to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across at least 3 days.

We need the UK government to develop a new alcohol strategy, which should consider the following areas.

1) Increase the price of alcohol

In England, it is possible to drink the low-risk weekly guideline of 14 units for just £2.68 – less than the cost of a cappuccino from many high-street coffee chains.

Evidence shows that as alcohol becomes more affordable, drinking and alcohol-related harm increase.

The simplest way to reduce the amount of cheap alcohol people drink is by increasing the price. A 50p minimum unit price (MUP) in England is estimated to save 525 lives and cut healthcare costs by £326m every year. MUP was introduced in Scotland in 2018 and in Wales in 2020. Since its introduction in Scotland, alcohol sales have fallen to their lowest level since 1994. If we are to tackle alcohol harm and improve our nation’s health, England cannot afford to be left behind the rest of the country.

2) Provide information

Alcohol is linked to at least 7 types of cancer, as well as more than 200 other diseases and injury conditions. Yet only 30% of people in the UK spontaneously link alcohol with cancer.

More needs to be done to increase people’s awareness of the health harms associated with alcohol so they can make informed choices about what and how much they drink.

We need prominent health warnings on alcohol labels. Studies suggest that this could help reduce alcohol harm by increasing knowledge of the health risks and prompt behaviour change.

3) Restrict alcohol advertising, promotion and availability

Alcohol advertising is everywhere in the UK today. A recent study found that alcohol appeared every 12 seconds at a 2020 Six Nations rugby match. This tournament is watched by around 30 million children every year.

Marketing like this serves to normalise alcohol consumption and make it seem part of everyday life from a young age.

We need the government to introduce comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising across multiple media, including restrictions on sponsorships and activities targeting young people, and to end the 24-hour unrestricted availability of alcohol in shops.

If you would like to keep up to date with the latest research on lifestyle and cancer, we invite you to access our free package for health professionals. It includes access to World Cancer Research Fund’s online cancer prevention course, accredited by RSPH and CPD-accredited. The package also includes a bundle of resources, and a subscription to our cancer prevention newsletter, Informed, published quarterly, plus monthly email updates on the latest cancer and lifestyle news. For further information, visit the WCRF cancer prevention package for health professionals webpage.