We know binge drinking is unhealthy – socially, physically and emotionally. But what about the long-term effects of drinking, even at low levels? Drinking alcohol is directly linked to chronic diseases, including cancer.* The World Cancer Research Fund links alcohol consumption with increased risk of oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, oesophageal, bowel (in men) and breast cancers.
But avoiding cancer isn’t high on the priority list for most people, especially when celebrating. At Christmas, health issues generally aren’t something that people worry about, let alone the future risk of developing a disease like cancer.
“I do want to do the best thing for me but I wouldn’t turn around and say that’s it, I am giving up alcohol for good” – focus group participant
Overindulging on the weekend is how many Australians relax after a stressful day or celebrate sporting wins (or commiserate defeats), and drinking is a rite of passage for young people, often before they’re legally allowed to. Many of us like a big night drinking, and can justify any drinking occasion – a new job, a birthday, a relationship break-up, the birth of a baby or simply because it’s what we normally do on a Saturday night.
“I cannot imagine a celebration without drinking; it just wouldn’t be the same” – focus group participant
But there are some people who don’t want to drink so much. We conducted some focus groups with 18-45 year olds and asked them how much they cared about their alcohol consumption, their general health and their cancer risk. Amidst the invincibility of youth, there were also those who felt they needed an excuse not to drink. Some pretended they were on antibiotics. Others offered to drive.
“(There’s) lots of peer pressure around drinking… keeping the good night happening” – focus group participant
We should feel that it is OK not to drink. It’s sad that some people pretend they are sick to avoid losing face in front of their friends. If more people reduce their drinking, alcohol-related violence and accidents will drop, as well as future cancer risk.
Were focus group participants aware of the link between alcohol and cancer? No, and some did not want to know. After viewing a community service announcement video about alcohol causing cancer, one young focus group participant said:
“It says it causes breast cancer, I’d totally dismiss that, nowhere have I ever heard that alcohol causes breast cancer.”
Others were shocked about just how much alcohol their bodies had to deal with. But one thing is for sure. The 3,200 Australian cancer cases attributable to alcohol each year can be prevented. To do this, our drinking culture must change.
We all have a responsibility to change the drinking culture, by considering how much we’re really drinking, going alcohol-free at some of our holiday celebrations, saying ‘no’ to ‘just one more’ and supporting rather than ridiculing friends and family members who choose to go easy on the alcohol this festive season. We recommend that if you do drink, you should follow the NHMRC alcohol guidelines of no more than two standard drinks a day.
Celebrating without alcohol – or at least a little less of it – will ensure that our fond holiday memories stay that way, and are not lost forever in the post-hangover haze. Who knows, it may even prevent cancer!
*Although alcohol may be protective against cardiovascular disease, the Heart Foundation does not recommend drinking alcohol to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease. The burden of alcohol-related disease and injury in Australia far outweighs any potential benefit.