Thursday 25 May 2023

Ireland's alcohol health warnings

I wrote a bit about the pros and cons of alcohol health warnings in Killjoys and have written something about them for The Critic now that they are likely to be a reality in Ireland in a few years.

The exact wording has not been finalised but two warnings have been proposed: “Drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “There is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”. Both of these statements are scientifically defensible and yet they are misleading because they omit important information. By ignoring any mention of excessive consumption, they imply that any amount of drinking causes these diseases. That is simply untrue of liver disease, which requires sustained consumption at quite high levels, and is debatable in the case of cancer. Although temperance campaigners are insistent that there is “no safe level” when it comes to drinking and cancer, the evidence for this is weak. 

Moreover, there is no mention of which cancers are associated with alcohol consumption. According to Cancer Research UK, there are seven alcohol-related cancers. Five of them are so rare that they are unlikely to give drinkers sleepless nights. Of the two more common types, colorectal cancer is only associated with alcohol consumption among heavy drinkers. This leaves breast cancer as the only common cancer associated with moderate drinking, although the magnitude of the risk is small — similar to that associated with taking the contraceptive pill — and the survival rate is high.

Given the countless risks that life throws at us, I suspect that nearly every drinker who was made aware of these facts would conclude that they are quite happy to take their chances and carry on drinking as they did before. But the Irish warning labels are not making drinkers aware of these facts. They are telling people that “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancer”. While this is not a lie, the signalling effect is likely to make consumers over-estimate the health risk and worry more than they should.

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