Published on: 13 November 2023

Nearly 500 adults in the North East are dying each year from cancers due to alcohol.

The figures have been revealed as a powerful new campaign aimed at reducing alcohol harm in the region launches today.

Balance is launching the “Alcohol is Toxic campaign supported by Cancer Research UK and local authorities to warn alcohol is a direct cause of 7 types of cancer – including bowel, breast, liver throat and mouth cancer.

Only 1 in 3 people in the North East are aware that alcohol causes cancer and yet nearly half (47%) of adults are drinking above the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of no more than 14 units a week - enough to significantly raise their risks.

It also comes as the UK topped global charts for binge drinking among women – defined as having at least six drinks in a single session – with 26% doing this at least once a month.

The powerful new creative from Balance is unlike any campaign ever seen before for alcohol in the UK and follows the journey of alcohol through the body, mutating cells and leading to the formation of a tumour.

It has been developed with input from doctors to depict the evidence on how alcohol causes cancer.

People are being encouraged to visit the website to find free advice and tools to cut down and links to local alcohol support services.

Latest figures around alcohol and cancer reveal:

  • Nearly 500 deaths (483) from cancer as a result of alcohol in 2019 in the North East.
  • Up to 1,640 men every two years diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer in the North East. The most common cancer for men with known associations with alcohol is bowel cancer.
  • Up to 1,580 women every two years diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer in the North East. The most common cancer for women with known associations with alcohol is breast cancer.
  • Alcohol is estimated to have caused around 740,000 new cases of cancer a year globally and 17,000 in the UK in 2020.

The World Health Organisation warns there is “no safe amount” of alcohol for health with the risks starting from the first drop.

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh and Balance, said:

"Unlike tobacco, alcohol products don’t have warnings about cancer or the other health risks on the label. But alcohol is a known Group One carcinogen – and to humans it is toxic.

"Two out of 3 people in the North East are not even aware alcohol causes cancer but we know there is strong support to have more information. People have a right to know alcohol is harmful to health.

"The alcohol industry does not want their customers to know this health information.

"That is why campaigns like this are a vital part of enabling people to make more informed decisions and need to be part of effective national action. It is unacceptable that there hasn’t been a national alcohol strategy since 2012."

Dr James Crosbie a GP and consultant gastroenterologist with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust and Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria, said:

"The fact is the more you drink alcohol, the more you increase your risk of developing cancer. But cutting down on alcohol can help to reduce that risk.

"It is alcohol itself that causes damage – whether wine, beer or spirits. Alcohol is one risk factor for cancer that we can change, control and do something positive about."

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compared alcohol consumption across 33 countries and found the UK was first in the global charts for binge drinking among women – defined as having at least six drinks in a single session – with 26% doing this at least once.

Caroline Tweedie is a Specialist Breast Care Nurse with Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, and said:

"When it comes to breast cancer risk there are factors we can’t control, like age and genetics, but there are lifestyle factors that we can control like alcohol and obesity.

"With breast cancer I think a lot of women will be shocked by the fact nearly 1 in 10 diagnosis that we see is down to alcohol intake. That would be 70 cancers less a year in our department alone.

"People never forget those words “you have cancer”. It’s like handing over a grenade. Lives just implode.

"I do think that if more women knew the risks around alcohol and cancer, they wouldn’t have that peer pressure. It’s extremely difficult to say I’m not having that extra drink.

"I think if more women knew about breast cancer risk, we would unite and support and inspire one another to drink that bit less and say it’s alright if you don’t want to have another drink."

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol and Drugs Lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health nationally, said:

"We might not like to think that drinking alcohol increases our risk of cancer. But that does not mean we should pretend that risk does not exist.

"It is time we had a national conversation about the risks associated with a product that the alcohol industry glamourises and encourages us to consume on countless occasions.

"This campaign is hard hitting – and it needs to be - to help open up that conversation.”

Dr David Cummins, a North East GP and Clinical Lead for Cancer and Planned Care, said:

"I think a lot of people will be shocked to learn that alcohol gets converted by our body into acetaldehyde  - a toxic chemical which can damage our cells and DNA.

"Alcohol is a direct cause of seven types of cancer, damaging and linked to breast and bowel – two of the most common cancers in the UK. Cutting down reduces the risks."

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance and Fresh, said:

"We are encouraging people in the North East to cut down to reduce their risks of cancer and other conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

"If you are concerned about how much you are drinking, taking more drink free days, finding out more about units are simple ways to cut down.

"We know that people who are more aware of these risks are more likely to try to cut down and take time off alcohol. But sometimes that is hard – and there is a lot of support in the region for people who are struggling with alcohol."

Darren Richardson, 58, from Northumberland gave up alcohol four years ago, not just for the health benefits, but also to support his family who made the decision to become alcohol free.

He explains:

"Like many young adults, both my sons, Sam and Will have struggled with mental health issues and we’ve learned the hard way that mental health conditions and alcohol form a toxic combination with damaging results.

"Thankfully the boys are both in a much better place and we’re a happier and healthier family without it in our lives.

"Although my decision was primarily driven by the mental health benefits for my family, I was also aware at my age that there would be other significant health benefits. 

"Alcohol is a substance that comes with many hidden dangers and not just for the individual. 

"Campaigns like this are vital to the health and wellbeing of our families and I wish they had been around to help me and mine understand the real threat of alcohol.

"Most of us don’t think about alcohol and cancer…. the fact it is a carcinogen is another reason to think about alcohol very differently and another reason to cut down."

Cancer Research UK's senior prevention policy manager, Malcolm Clark, said: 

"There’s strong evidence that drinking alcohol can cause seven types of cancer, and the more someone drinks the greater their risk. Whatever people's drinking habits are, cutting down will help to reduce their cancer risk – which is why we welcome Balance's efforts to get that message across.

"The UK Government should be doing more to reduce alcohol harm, including introducing restrictions on alcohol marketing.

"There are other steps that people can take if they are concerned about their cancer risk as well. Not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and eating a healthy, balanced diet are all proven to reduce people's risk of cancer."

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, added:

"Awareness that alcohol causes seven types of cancer is worryingly low among the public. Current labelling practices from the alcohol industry keep consumers in the dark about the health risks associated with their products.

"Measures such as bold public health campaigns like this one from Balance, are important to inform consumers about these risks and allow them to make healthier choices."

In 2019/20 there were almost 980,000 hospital admissions nationally where the primary reason or a secondary diagnosis was linked to alcohol – a 4% rise on 2018/19 (broad measure). This represents 5.7% of all hospital admissions and includes:

  • 435,000 admissions for cardiovascular disease
  • 227,000 admissions for mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol
  • 93,000 admissions due to cancer
  • 74,000 admissions for liver disease

As well as cancer, drinking regularly can also damage the liver and raise our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and stroke. It can lead to us gaining weight and increase the risk of anxiety and depression.