EU must raise awareness of links between alcohol use and cancer

Reducing alcohol-related cancer rates should be a public health priority, says Glenis Willmott.

By Glenis Willmott

21 May 2015

Europe is the world’s heaviest drinking region, with alcohol consumption reaching double the global average.

Alcohol is the second largest lifestyle-related cause of disease in many European countries – second only to tobacco – yet our policies are lagging far behind in what is necessary to limit alcohol-related harm.

Alcohol can have many negative effects and is linked to over 60 chronic diseases. One of the most overlooked consequences of alcohol consumption, however, is cancer.


Starting next Monday it is the European week against cancer (25-31 May), and as member of the MEPs against cancer (MAC) group, I’d like to highlight the importance of EU action on this issue.

According to the international agency for research on cancer (IARC), alcohol is linked to at least seven types of cancer including mouth, gullet, throat, liver, large bowel and breast; the risk of cancer is higher still for people who combine alcohol and tobacco use.

The European code against cancer is clear that “not drinking alcohol is best for cancer prevention”. In the UK, alcohol is associated with over 12,000 cases of cancer a year. Yet public awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer is fairly low, especially for cancers other than liver cancer.

Only one in three people in the UK are aware that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer despite the fact that as little as one standard drink a day – for example a 175ml glass of wine – can increase the risk of breast cancer among women.

It’s clear there is an appetite for a better understanding of the health consequences of drinking alcohol, and through better health information and labelling we can ensure that people have the information they need to make informed decisions.

Research in Europe has shown that one in 10 Europeans are not aware of this connection, and that one in five do not believe there is a connection between cancer and the drinks that millions of us enjoy every week.

To raise awareness of the carcinogenicity of alcohol, a multi-stakeholder approach and political commitment is essential.

I was delighted that my colleagues in the European parliament supported my resolution on the alcohol strategy last month as this helped send a clear message to the commission that MEPs want to see action being taken on alcohol.

The old alcohol strategy expired in 2012 and we urgently need to replace it and look at where there EU can add value. Raising awareness about the link between alcohol and cancer is definitely one of these areas.

We are now at a point where the facts are clear – the science proves the harmful effect of excessive alcohol consumption on health and the link between alcohol and several cancers.  

The health ministers of EU member states called for action at a special meeting in Riga in April, and parliament has made it clear that we want to see a new alcohol strategy.

While lives are being lost, there is no excuse for further delays. We need action now.


Read the most recent articles written by Glenis Willmott - Alcohol labelling should be about what's best for consumers - not industry