How can we reduce our reliance on alcohol?

People enjoy a meal together while drinking water

Misleading information on the harm alcohol does has led people to underestimate its dangers, and the impact of low-alcohol drinks is unknown

Going for a drink with friends to a local pub or bar is a part of everyday life for many people living in the UK. And those drinks – which are mainly alcoholic – mount up.

1 in 4 (24%) of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink more than the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines, while 27% of drinkers in Great Britain binge drink (classed as more than 8 units for men and more than 6 for women) on their heaviest drinking days.

Strong evidence of risk

The case for concern is clear. Alcohol is a cause of more than 60 medical conditions, and our own research shows strong evidence that alcohol increases the risk of 6 cancers: breast, bowel, liver, mouth and throat, oesophagus (squamous cell carcinoma) and stomach.

Yet, disappointingly, less than 2 in 5 people (only 37%) of people are aware of the link between alcohol and the risk of cancer.

With that knowledge in mind, we want to examine the challenges behind ensuring people cut the amount of alcohol they drink.

A man looks at the label on a wine bottle

  • The words and phrases used

The chances are that you’ve seen phrases such as “harmful use of alcohol”, “drink responsibly” or “moderate drinking” used in adverts or the media. These terms make it sound as if there’s an amount of alcohol you can drink for it not to affect your health.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Alcohol is never harmless in terms of cancer, and, we have lobbied the policy community to stop using the phrase “harmful use of alcohol”.

  • Mixed messages

If you talk about the negative effects of alcohol, many people will tell you that “red wine is good for you”, as a result of various news and media stories over the past couple of decades.

This claim came out of research suggesting that – as part of a Mediterranean diet – a moderate amount of red wine was good for heart health.

However, more recent research has failed to back this up, often concluding that the risk factors of drinking alcohol – in relation to an increase in cancer risk – outweighs any possible benefits.

It’s also notable that the World Heart Federation is clear that alcohol is a risk factor for heart disease.

With this in mind, it’s frustrating that the media hasn’t done more to counteract the message that alcohol consumption is harmful and will happily jump on any story that implies its benefits.

  • Part of everyday life

As noted in the introduction, alcohol is socially acceptable and – in the UK – those who don’t drink can be seen as not one of the gang. The inference is that you can’t be fun if you don’t drink.

This social acceptance of alcohol is tied into the influence of the alcohol industry. There are still no restrictions on alcohol sponsorship in England, while plans to introduce a ban in Scotland have been met with strong pushback from the industry, despite research that suggests there is public support for measures.

  • Impact of no/low alcohol

Given the known risks of alcohol on health, any encouragement towards low and no-alcohol drinks would seem to be positive.

However, it’s still unclear if these are merely a gateway to drinking more alcohol, and more evidence is needed into the impact and effect of no or low alcohol drinks.

What’s more, companies in the alcohol industry are using these products as a way of getting round marketing restrictions in other countries. Even though there’s a ban on alcohol sponsorship in Ireland, Guinness has continued its relationship with rugby tournaments, by promoting Guinness Zero thereby gaining exposure for the whole Guinness brand.

  • The difficulty of standing up to the drinks industry

In common with the food and drinks industry in general, including the companies who produce and market ultra-processed food, the influence of the alcohol industry is large.

In addition, policymakers who would introduce new laws to improve the situation are often swayed by their own personal habits and the financial benefits that the alcohol industry brings to the economy.

This is despite the clear harms of alcohol – something they often admit in public.

The drinks industry has also managed to position itself within the policymaking process, something we strongly oppose due to the inherent conflict of interest.

> How the alcohol industry persuades us to drink too much

So what can be done?

Changing behaviour is hard, but there are opportunities to progress.

The economic benefits that the alcohol industry brings to the UK is often used as a reason to keep the status quo, but conversely the OECD has shown the economic benefits of alcohol policy measures – a return of $16 in every $1 invested. This makes it clear that the financial advantages will simply show up elsewhere in the economy.

Other countries are introducing policies that can be monitored and learned from. Ireland has recently brought in a law to label alcoholic products, showing buyers the health risks of drinking, including cancer risk.

Scotland’s minimum unit price policy has already been shown to reduce alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions.

At World Cancer Research Fund, we will continue to build scientific evidence around alcohol and work in partnership with other organisations to push policymakers around the world to make change, promoting campaigns that encourage a reduction in alcohol.

Where next?

Alcohol Awareness Week takes place from 3–9 July 2023