CISUR Director Tim Stockwell on alcohol & cancer, industry obfuscation and the most viable approach to reduce population harms from alcohol

Tim at the 2017 Global Alcohol Policy Conference

CISUR Director Tim Stockwell was a keynote speaker at the recent 2017 Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Melbourne, Australia, where he presented on the public health benefits of minimum unit pricing of alcohol:

[Minimum unit pricing for alcohol] is probably one of the most effective and viable approaches to reducing alcohol-related harm . . . and one of the few things that can be done that will tangibly, quickly, reduce health inequality

Tim on preventing alcohol-caused cancers

In a recent editorial in Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy journal, Tim makes the case for 

1. increased awareness raising of alcohol as a carcinogen:

Despite recognition of alcohol’s carcinogenic properties for several decades by the World Health Organization (WHO) and international expert cancer bodies, astonishingly few countries even require warning labels to be placed on alcohol containers and alert consumers to the risk

2. minimum unit pricing of alcohol as possibly the most cost-effective cancer prevention strategy:

Multiple reviews have identified pricing strategies as being the most potent and evidence-based approach to reducing the population’s consumption of alcohol and hence exposure to its carcinogenic properties . . . More recently, attention has been drawn to the importance of targeting cheap alcohol as a means of reducing rates of hazardous alcohol use

CARBC alcohol research group with visiting scholars
CARBC Director Tim Stockwell with alcohol research colleagues: CARBC's Jinhui Zhao and Adam Sherk (front), and visiting scholars Annie Britton ( professor in epidemiology at University College London) and Tim Naimi (Associate Professor, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health)

Tim on Alcohol Industy Interference

In an interview with Medscape (registration required), Tim discusses a recent paper about the alcohol industry's attempts to mislead the public about the link between alcohol and cancer:

1. Given the prevalence of binge-drinking in Western culture, particularly in youth, what do you see as the priorities for better education about the impact of alcohol on cancer risk and/or reducing alcohol consumption?

I believe the first priority is to place prominent health messages on all alcohol containers which explain the multiple health risks associated with even moderate use. The notion that the alcohol and alcoholic beverages is recognised as carcinogenic and that there is no safe level should be part of that information. That should have course be placed into context and compared with other common risks to health and safety we encounter in our daily lives. The idea that the more you drink the greater the risk should be communicated along with conservative low-risk drinking guidelines.

It is good to connect this issue to youth drinking as a) it is likely that the mechanism of risk from alcohol involves lifetime exposure to ethanol and its first metabolite acetaldehyde from the first drink to the last b) there may be special risks associated with a binge pattern though that has not yet been fully determined c) sadly, a number of young people do contract cancer.

Finally, a priority should be to limit the dangerous influence of alcohol industry groups on public communications about alcohol – a first step would be to end government funding and collaboration with industry front organisations such as those studied in this paper, secondly it should be legally required that health information provided by drinks industry groups should come with an explicit health warning and public declaration of conflict-of-interest.

2. Is there such a thing as “responsible drinking” in your opinion? 

The concept of “responsible drinking” is promoted by alcohol industry groups because it subtly implies the only issue is whether you can hold your liquor, not get into fist fights and not drive afterwards. It has nothing to do with long-term health consequences. The use of this term in itself subtly deflects attention from long-term health effects to just the immediate physical environment and its level of safety. The latter is important, but of course not drinking and driving and holding your liquor can be achieved while drinking a great deal and thus compromising long-term health. A better term is “low-risk drinking” as this acknowledges the fact that even light drinking is a risk factor for cancer.

3. Any other comments?

Increasingly, industry groups use a whole range of social media and a complex array of influence and communication strategies such as funding seemingly independent think tanks, University researchers and working to get a place at national and international policy tables. The net effect of these activities justifies the point of view that the alcohol industry itself is a threat to public health and safety.

See Tim's profile page for all his research activities