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The Canadian Cancer Society wanted to launch “Dry February” in this year’s Cancer Prevention Month. Oddly enough, the public seized on “Dry January” as sort of a hang-over cure. "Dry February" is going ahead anyway, but quietly. Too bad. The Canadian Cancer Society has a frightening message for drinkers: every drop of liquor you drink, increases your risk for seven kinds of cancer.  

Since 2016, organizations like the World Health Organization, the  American Institute for Cancer Research and the Canadian Cancer Society have been sounding the alarm: alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of cancer, and consumption is rising. Whether wine, beer, whiskey or eau de vie, every millilitre of alcohol increases a person’s risk of cancer.

Doctors already knew that the active ingredient in alcohol is a dangerous toxin. As the American Society of Clinical Onocologists reported, “approximately 88,000 deaths were attributed to excessive alcohol use in the United States between 2006 and 2010. Approximately 3.3 million deaths worldwide result from the harmful use of alcohol each year.” 

Now, recent research has proved a direct link between drinking alcohol and mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer. When alcohol consumption rises in a population, so does the incidence of these lethal disorders. 

Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, says the American Institute for Cancer Research. In mice that were given alcohol, “the acetaldehyde broke and damaged DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells,” according to the AICR. "The damaged DNA blueprint within these stem cells can give rise to cancer." 

Most Canadians are exposed to this risk. Eighty per cent of adult Canadians say they drink alcohol, and of those, more than half say they drink beer.

"In Canada,” says Statista, the Statistics Portal, "approximately 19.5 per cent of consumers were reported as heavy alcoholic drinkers in 2017, with men consuming five or more drinks per sitting and women consuming four or more drinks, at least once per month for 12 months."  And consumption is increasing.

The incidence of cancer is also increasing. "About one in two Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime,” according to the Canadian Cancer Society, "and about one in four Canadians will die of cancer. In 2017, it is projected that 206,200 Canadians will develop cancer, and 80,800 will die of the disease."  

Booze is big business here, especially beer. In 2017, Canadians spent more than $22 billion on alcoholic beverages. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) estimates tourism brings $88 billion to Canada's hospitality industry -- much of it lubricated by alcoholic drinks. 

People know alcohol can be dangerous, but think that it can be safe and fun in moderation. "It turns out that what you don't know can kill you,” says the DrinkTank website, established to encourage Australians to re-think their drinking habits. 

"Alcohol industry executives don’t want you to know that alcohol causes cancer. That's because if people buy less alcohol, they make less profit. As a consumer, however, you have the right to know when a product has the potential to cause you serious harm so that you can make an informed choice.... Like tobacco, alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen -- that's the highest level given to a substance that can cause cancer." 

DrinkTank says there are several reasons that this danger is not common knowledge. First, the causal relationship was nailed down only about a decade ago, with a 2007 World Cancer Research Fund, confirmed by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, and reconfirmed by WCRF in 2018. Second, third and fourth, says DrinkTank, the alcohol industry has fought tooth and nail to conceal and obsfucate the facts. 

On the other hand, governments have reasons of their own to hesitate, starting with reluctance to dismantle the multi-billion-dollar alcohol industry, which employs milions of people and supplies thousands of stores, restaurants and bars. On a strictly financial basis, cancer care costs Canada "only" about $8 billion a year. 

Furthermore, promoting alcohol awareness could also mean promoting decades of class-action suits, as U.S. consumers especially seek to recover their exorbitant medical costs from liquor manufacturers.  

Or maybe trying to promote awareness is just swimming against the current. Alcohol is ingrained in our culture. "It’s Wine O’Clock somewhere," we joke. As the Canadian Cancer Society website says, "We've all heard about the benefits of drinking alcohol: red wine is good for your heart health, whiskey can cure the common cold, and vodka can freshen breath, among others. It can be easy to believe what we want to hear, but alcohol consumption can actually cause many health concerns, including cancer.

"The sobering news is that alcohol is one of the top three causes of cancer deaths worldwide. Last year, it is estimated that as many as 10,700 Canadians were diagnosed with cancer linked to their alcohol consumption."  

Although six in 10 women and four in 10 men drink more than recommended, the cancer society found, only three in 10 Ontarians know about the cancer link. "Two-thirds of Ontarians say they would likely reduce their consumption of alcohol if they learned that drinking alcohol increased their risk of cancer...."

The logical way to increase awareness would be to put a warning label on every liquor, wine or beer bottle, just like tobacco package warnings. Of course, that would require governments to stand up to the liquor industry. So brace yourselves for a series of nudges, public activities, campaigns and celebrity endorsements for sobriety, rather than a frank acknowledgement that science has proven that people who drink a lot of alcohol increase their risk of cancer with every sip.   

© Penney Kome 2019. All rights reserved.                                                                                            Image: Wikimedia commons, public domain

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