Litre-a-year alcohol reduction would drive down cancer deaths

Reducing Australia's per-capita alcohol consumption by just one litre a year would drive a significant reduction in head, neck and liver cancer deaths.

That's the conclusion of a new study that offers the first suggestive evidence that a decrease in Australia's population-level drinking - as opposed to individual-level - would reduce the prevalence of cancer deaths particularly among men and over 50s.

The report from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR) and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) examined the effect of a reduction in population drinking across different genders and age groups between 1968 and 2011.

The study found that across a 20-year period, a one litre decrease in annual alcohol consumption per capita was associated with reductions in head and neck cancer mortality of 11.6 per cent in men and 7.3 per cent in women.

The association was strongest in both men and woman aged 50 or above, reflecting the long-term effects of alcohol consumption on the development of cancer in the human body.

There was also a 15 per cent reduction in male liver cancer mortality. However no associations were found between per-capital alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer mortality, with the links between alcohol and that form of cancer unclear.

While the long-term use of alcohol has long been recognised as a risk factor for cancer, the relationship is typically addressed only in individual-level studies, with the overall population effects rarely examined.

The report estimates alcohol was to blame for about 6.5 per cent of male and 4.1 per cent of female head and neck cancer deaths in the last 50 years.

Alcohol was estimated to be responsible for 8.4 per cent of male liver cancer deaths, in the study that also took smoking rates and health spending into account.

CAPR deputy director Michael Livingston said alcohol remained a major contributor to Australia's burden of disease, with overwhelming epidemiological evidence that alcohol contributes to the development of specific cancers. Lead author Jason Jiang said the report further highlighted the importance of measures to bring down the nation's alcohol consumption levels.

FARE chief executive Michael Thorn says there remains a general lack of recognition among Australians that alcohol causes cancer.

"This study exposes the need for improved public health education campaigns, better public health policies on alcohol, and more promotion of the guidelines - to reduce the toll of cancer-related diseases and deaths in Australia," he said.

Mr Thorn urged Australians to follow official guidelines that suggest an adult should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day.

Alcohol is linked to 5500 deaths and 157,000 hospitalisations in Australia every year, making it one of the nation's biggest preventative health challenges.

Per capita alcohol consumption in Australia increased significantly between 1950 and 1970 but has decreased in more recent decades. However alcohol consumption rose in 2016 for the first time in nine years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The story Litre-a-year alcohol reduction would drive down cancer deaths first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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