Leanne Salmon looks closely at the harmful effects of alcohol.
“The number of new cases of alcohol-related cancers in Ireland is expected to double by 2020”
The above is a statement by The Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Manager, Kevin O’ Hagan, in relation to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) report released last Wednesday. Amongst the data about men and women in Ireland in 2016 a damning report was highlighted, which showed that in 2014, Irish young people between the ages of 18-24 topped the EU table for excessively drinking alcohol.
The average EU rate of alcohol consumption is 11.7% for men aged 18-24, and 4.3% for women aged 18-24. More than a quarter of Irish males aged 18-24 engaged in binge drinking at least once a week in 2014, which was over double the EU average. Just under one in six Irish women aged 18-24 engaged in binge drinking at least once a week in 2014, which was over treble the EU average according to the report. 
The Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Manager, Kevin O’Hagan, finds this data to be ‘disappointing’ because of alcohol’s link with cancer and death in Europe.
“The statistics are very disappointing in that we have known for some time that alcohol consumption is the third leading risk factor for disease and mortality in Europe,” said Mr O’Hagan.
According to The Irish Cancer Society’s website, alcohol is associated with seven different types of cancer; throat cancer, mouth cancer, cancer of the voice box, cancer of the oesophagus, breast cancer, liver cancer and bowel cancer.
Every year The Irish Cancer Society said that 900 people develop cancer from drinking too much alcohol. Of those 900, over 500 die from the disease.
Excessive drinking or ‘binge drinking’ is described by the HSÉ’s website as drinking more than six standard drinks in one sitting. A standard drink is a pub measure of spirits or a small glass of wine or a half pint of beer or an alcopop such as WKD. The recommended weekly amount of alcohol for women is 11 standard drinks and 17 standard drinks for men.
In Europe, an estimated 10% of all cancer cases in men and 3% of all cancer cases in women can be attributed to alcohol consumption, according to the Irish Cancer Society.
According to O’Hagan, studies have shown that alcohol has a strong link with the development of breast cancer. Drinking 3-6 standard drinks every day increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by 41%.
“More than 100 studies have looked at the link between alcohol and breast cancer in women. These studies have time and time again found that drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk.
“Evidence has shown that drinking one standard drink a day is associated with a 9% increase in the risk of a women developing breast cancer, while drinking 3 to 6 standard drinks a day increases the risk by 41%,” said Mr O’Hagan.
It is obvious that in Ireland we have a problem with alcohol. As well as the CSO data, a global report from March 2014 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) put Ireland as second out of 194 WHO countries for binge drinking levels.
The report found that 39% of all Irish people aged 15+ had excessively drank alcohol in the past 30 days, which put us ahead of Britain (28%) and below Austria’s 40.5%.
Ireland has had a complex relationship with alcohol for decades. Since 1960, our levels of drinking have almost trebled, whilst dropping at the same time. According to Alcohol Action Ireland’s website, the average amount of alcohol drank by one person in 1960 was 4.9 litres. As of 2016, this figure had reached 11.5 litres of alcohol per person.
“Alcohol consumption in Ireland almost trebled over four decades between 1960 (4.9 litres of pure alcohol per capita) and 2000 (14.1 litres of pure alcohol per capita), as alcohol became much more affordable and more widely available.
“Since then, our alcohol consumption has declined by 19.6%, from a peak of 14.3 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2001, to 11.5 litres in 2016,” said the website.
As well as cancer, alcohol bingeing can contribute to accidents, injuries, violence, strokes, stomach disease and mental health issues, said the CEO of Drink Aware, Niamh Gallagher.
“We know that regularly drinking alcohol at this level can increase the risk of experiencing alcohol-related harms, including accidents, injuries, violence, stomach disease, cancer and strokes.
“As well as the impact on physical health, alcohol can have a serious impact on mental health, affecting ability to cope with everyday stresses. It is also linked with particular mental health issues including depression and anxiety,” said Ms Gallagher.
With all this information in mind, it is clear that young Irish people drink too much. The health risks associated with alcohol seem to outweigh the fun of it, yet Irish people keep drinking, resulting in our statistics growing and growing with each decade that passes.
But how can we resolve this issue?
According to Gallagher, measures such as education and awareness about alcohol are needed, as well as teaching young people to say no to alcohol and an improvement of legislation is needed to stop under age people being able to access alcohol.
“We need a combination of measures; education and awareness to communicate the impact of alcohol on young people and to build the skills and resilience required to say no; and enforcement of the law, to ensure that young people under age cannot access alcohol and those who supply it to them are punished,” said Ms Gallagher.
O’Hagan, believes that increasing awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer is challenging due to marketing and advertising by drinks suppliers, which influences how people view alcohol.
“The most important thing at the moment is to continue to increase awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer. Presenting this message is particularly challenging in the context of considerable investment by the alcohol industry on marketing and advertising to influence people’s alcohol beliefs and behaviour,” said Mr O’ Hagan.
Suzanne Costello, Lead of the HSÉ Alcohol Programme, is in agreement with Mr O’ Hagan, believing that the alcohol industry’s marketing of alcoholic products is perceived as ‘glamorous’ and ‘risk-free’ to young people.
“Alcohol marketing is designed to make alcohol sell. A huge amount of money is invested in it and so alcohol is marketed as something that is largely risk-free. It’s glamorous and aligned with social success in how it’s marketed and hence, for young people, that makes it attractive,” Ms Costello said.
The (ABFI) represents alcoholic drinks manufacturers and suppliers in Ireland. The Director of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), Patricia Callan, defended the statements made by saying that the drinks industry supports measures to tackle misuse of alcohol and to reduce alcohol consumption of young people.
“The position of the drinks industry has always been to support the introduction of measures to tackle alcohol misuse and alcohol consumption by young people ... It is not in the best interests of the drinks industry when people misuse our product. Ultimately, alcohol misuse damages our brands and our reputation. Our industry engages in responsible marketing and promotion, and is governed by some of the strictest regulatory codes in the world,” said Ms Callan.
According to Costello, reducing alcohol-related harm is tough because of the alcohol industry lobbying against any changes to Irish law in relation to alcohol. To combat this, she said that the public health community need to keep working to get politicians to progress legislation.
“It’s a contested space and the public health community need to make the case and display the evidence in order to get politicians to take action to progress the legislation,” said Ms Costello.
In December 2015, the legislation for the Public Health Bill was approved by the Irish Government. The Bill’s aim is to deal with minimum unit pricing of alcohol, labelling laws on alcohol, advertising laws and availability of alcohol in Ireland.
O’ Hagan of the Irish Cancer Society hopes the Bill will lead to legislation in tackling issues surrounding alcohol advertising, sponsorship and health labelling of alcohol products because he believes that Irish people are in denial to the harmful effects of alcohol.
“It is our hope that the new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will introduce much stricter legislation governing alcohol advertising and sponsorship and also health labelling of Alcohol Products since there is widespread misunderstanding and denial of the harmful effects of alcohol on health,” said Mr O’ Hagan.
Drink Aware are also supportive of the Public Health Bill, “we are supportive of the Bill but it’s a matter of what happens next,” said Ms Gallagher.
The HSÉ’s Lead of the Alcohol Programme, Suzanne Costello, finds this statement to be ‘contradictory’, given the fact that Drink Aware are funded by the alcohol industry.
“That’s a position that we would find contradictory because if the people that fund Drink Aware are funding the lobbyists to derail the Bill, I’m not sure what exactly their position is,” said Costello.
Gallagher admitted to being funded by the alcohol industry as well as the grocery retail industry. However, Ms Gallagher stressed that the governance of Drink Aware is separate to the funding received by the alcohol industry. She also said that the Board of the organisation has no links to the alcohol industry.
“Drink Aware does receive funding from the alcohol industry and the grocery retail industry so we’re not just funded by the alcohol industry.
“We receive funding from both but our governance is absolutely separate to our funding. Our Board drives our strategy and oversees our work and they have no links to the alcohol industry. They’re completely independent,” Ms Gallagher said.
The Public Health Bill is still being debated, with it moving back and forth between the Dáil and the Seanad. It is hoped that the Bill will come before the Seanad again in November of this year.
Judging by all the statistics of alcohol rates in Ireland, the harmful effects of alcohol and the constant clash between the drinks industry and health campaigners, it’s fair to say that Irish millenials and the general population need this legislation in force as soon as possible.
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