Doctors and public health campaigners are demanding that hard-hitting labels should be on cans and bottles of alcohol, mirroring the graphic photographs and wording on cigarette packets.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) said mass media campaigns were now needed to tackle the widespread lack of awareness that alcohol and being overweight are both major causes of cancer.
“There is a dire need for impactful campaigns to highlight important health messages and to reduce the risk of preventable cancers,” Dr Pangiota Mitrou, the WCRF’s director of research.
“History shows that sometimes very graphic, hard-hitting tactics in campaigns – even images that risk upsetting some people – are necessary to alert the public to the dangers of unhealthy behaviour,” she added, calling for labels highlighting that drinking raises the risk of fatal illnesses, including cancer, on cans and bottles of alcohol.
About 40% of all cancers are preventable because they are caused by known risk factors, mainly smoking, alcohol, obesity and sunburn, the WCRF and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) believe. Alcohol has been shown to cause seven forms of cancer while strong evidence has found that overweight and obese adults – two-thirds of Britons weigh more than their healthy weight – are at heightened risk of 14 different forms of the disease, according to WCRF, which tracks global changes in the evidence base for what causes cancer.
The Alcohol Health Alliance, a grouping of medical organisations and health charities, wants the UK to follow Ireland’s example on warning labels.
Dr Sadie Boniface, head of research at the Institute of Alcohol Studies thinktank, said the move would improve the “very low” levels of awareness that alcohol caused cancer.
“The fox has been left in charge of the hen house, with the alcohol industry self-regulating its own product labelling. A couple of years ago the government promised a consultation on alcohol labelling but it is yet to materialise,” she said.
Ireland recently became the first country in the world to legislate to do that. In future, labels on alcohol products will warn drinkers that “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.