Majority of Europeans face risk of digestive cancers due to alcohol, report claims

The survey found that all EU countries had a ‘moderate’ average daily intake of alcoholic drinks, meaning between one and four drinks per day. [Alice Salles/Flickr]

A new report has linked alcohol consumption in the EU to an increase in cases of digestive cancer and warned policymakers to take immediate action.

According to the World Health Organisation, some 3.3 million deaths around the world – 5.9% of all premature deaths – result from the harmful use of alcohol each year. Europe has the highest consumption rate of alcohol worldwide.

United European Gastroenterology (UEG) published a report last week, warning that the alarming alcohol consumption in Europe is linked to a rise in digestive cancers.

The report gathered the opinions of leading European digestive cancer specialists and focused on the impact of alcohol on this type of cancer.

UEG President Michael Manns stressed that despite the EU’s efforts to tackle the impact of alcohol on health, consumption remains higher than in the rest of the world and simultaneously, the incidence of alcohol-related digestive cancers is on the rise.

“We urgently require a focused multi-dimensional approach from policy and decision makers to dramatically increase public and healthcare professional awareness of the dangers of alcohol […] and strategies to reduce alcohol intake and the resulting incidence of digestive cancers,” Manns emphasised.

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EU citizens consume an average of two alcoholic drinks per day. According to the report, drinkers face a 21% increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, in addition to other digestive cancers.

The survey found that all EU countries had a ‘moderate’ average daily intake of alcoholic drinks, meaning between one and four drinks per day. “This places these citizens at a heightened risk of both colorectal and oesophageal cancer,” the report stressed.

Regarding ‘heavy’ drinkers or those who consume four or more drinks per day, the report stressed they were found to be at an increased risk of pancreatic, liver and gastric cancer.

“These three cancers, coupled with colorectal and oesophageal cancer are the five most common digestive cancers worldwide, causing almost 3 million deaths per year and contributing to over a third of global cancer deaths,” the report pointed out, underlining that there no EU country had an average daily alcohol consumption of less than one drink per capita.

What is the most ‘dangerous’ drink?

Asked what the most “dangerous” alcoholic drink for digestive cancer is, Professor Helena Cortez-Pinto said, “Research into which type of alcoholic beverage has the most significant role in cancer remains inconclusive.”

Cortez-Pinto, who is also an EU Policy Advisor for the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), explained that most studies do not report any variation in the risk of digestive cancers being increased by any particular type of drink.

“The issue is that some alcoholic beverages have a much higher alcoholic content that may increase the risk of higher amounts of alcohol intake. In fact, the main issue is the total amount of alcohol ingested and not the type of drink,” she said.

The report, though, claims that the greatest risks derive from wine and to a lesser extend from spirits and beer. This can be attributed, according to the survey, to the consumption of large quantities of cheap wine which can also contain other harmful ingredients.

But this theory contradicts the claim that moderate consumption of red wine is healthy.

“One challenge is the school of thought that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, is often considered to be healthy. According to animal experiments, there is some truth to this […] however many regular drinkers have a certain level of addiction and there is then a very different and more serious risk profile,” Professor Matthias Löhr said.

Alcohol makers brace for EU-wide mandatory labelling

Makers of spirits and beer are exploring self-regulatory solutions to show consumers the ingredients contained in the alcohol they drink. However, they find the Commission’s timeline “too tight” and fear mandatory rules will eventually be imposed on them.

Lack of awareness and policy measures

A worrying factor is the low public awareness of the link between alcohol and digestive cancers.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, one in ten EU citizens is not aware of the connection and one in five does not even believe that there is a link between cancer and alcoholic drinks.

“Urgent action is required to reduce heavy alcohol consumption and the cancer-related burden that it carries,” Mariann Skar, the secretary-general of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare) told EURACTIV.

Skar pointed out that member states should be supported by the EU by facilitating harmonised regulation and alcohol-related policies, such as a ban on TV-related advertising and sports sponsorship, improved labelling and minimum unit pricing.

As far as labelling is concerned, producers of alcoholic beverages are not obliged to indicate the list of ingredients or provide any nutrition information, which is not the case for other foods.

In March, after a two-year delay, the European Commission gave the industry an additional year to develop its own voluntary initiatives for providing lists of ingredients and nutritional declarations.

Commission grants industry additional year to propose alcohol labelling information

Following a two-year delay, the European Commission presented its proposal on alcohol information on Monday (13 March), giving the alcoholic beverages industry an additional year to come up with a “self-regulatory” proposal.

Commenting on the Commission’s decision, Dr Cortez-Pinto said it had been a weak response and that a new “Alcohol Strategy” that deals with the different aspects of increased alcohol consumption was needed.

Regarding “self-regulation”, she said she was disappointed “since we consider it is not an appropriate mechanism of regulation. Definitions and rules should come from the European Commission.”

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