Confusing headlines hinder cancer prevention message

19 August 2015 | News

CANCER PREVENTION IN THE NEWS by Will Finch, World Cancer Research Fund UK’s Press and Communications Officer

The information surrounding cancer and cancer prevention can be confusing, particularly when conflicting messages regularly emanate from the media.

A recent Daily Mirror front page story proclaimed

“ONE glass of wine a day ‘raises breast cancer risk’”

Inside, the point was stressed further

“Women told: Take a day off wine to help fight cancer – regular drinking increases danger of the disease.”

The story was based on the results of the University of Oxford’s Million Women Study, recently published on a factsheet by Alcohol Concern. The charity claimed that around 3,000 cases of breast cancer are directly attributable to drinking alcohol.

The Mirror quoted Samia al Qadi from Breast Cancer Care: “Limiting alcohol intake, as well as making other lifestyle choices such as taking regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, can help reduce your risk.”

Our advice

This last comment reflects accurately our own research on the subject – we estimate that about 38% of breast cancer cases in the UK could be prevented by not drinking alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active.

Our advice is that, if you drink alcohol, your limit should be two drinks a day if you are a man or one if you are a woman. One drink is the same as

  • half a pint of beer, larger or cider (3-5% ABV),
  • one small glass (125ml) of wine (12-13% ABV)
  • one single measure (25ml) of spirits (40% ABV), such as vodka or whisky

alcohol increases the risk of 5 cancers infographic

So what’s the issue?

Miracle ingredient

The very same day, the Daily Mail ran a story with this headline

Glass of red wine ‘can fight cancer’

Houston, we have a problem.

This story was based on research by Professor Karen Brown from the University of Leicester who studied the ability of resveratrol, a ‘miracle ingredient’ in red wine, to limit bowel cancer in mice genetically reared to develop the disease.

Professor Brown found that not only did resveratrol stop tumours, but she also found that a low dose of resveratrol was twice as effective as one 200 times higher.

Only in the last paragraph was it suggested that the increase in cancer risk linked to alcohol outweighs any possible benefits from resveratrol. But you would never have guessed so from the headline.

'Units' of alcohol

Confusion of a different kind surrounds the government’s advice on alcohol consumption – while we’ve been told for almost 30 years that men shouldn’t drink more than 21 units of alcohol a week, and women no more than 14, many people have no idea what a ‘unit’ of alcohol actually is.

And is a one-size-fits-all alcohol policy the best way forward, when there is some evidence to show that different ages are at different risk?

This was the subject explored by Jonathan Gornall in yesterday’s Daily Mail, under the startling headline

“Why alcohol rules should be rewritten so that men over 55 can drink more”

Major review

The Department of Health is currently in the middle of its first major review of the alcohol consumption guidelines for 20 years. However, despite the confusion, it seems unlikely that the review will lead to any radical changes – it looks like ‘one-size-fits-all’ guidance, units of alcohol and ‘please drink responsibly’ labels are here to stay.

Will Finch | 19 August 2015

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