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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

April 14, 2011



Alcohol and cancer: a marriage of convenience?

Drink is entwined in every aspect of life. We drink when we are happy, we drink when we are sad. We drink to celebrate and to mourn. We drink to relax and when we want a lively night out. We drink to socialise and to be alone. We drink when we fancy a drink.

This is frustrating for any kind of analysis. How do you disentangle drink from everything else?

Headlines last week declared that drinking, even in relatively small quantities, causes cancer amply illustrated, as usual, by attractive young ladies in various states of squiffiness.

It would be nice if journalists read the original research before jumping into wild statements like this.

The original research was published by the British Medical Journal which was, as you would expect, slightly more circumspect.

“Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study” was its headline, but unfortunately it’s impossible to tell what that means. Even if you get to the end of it.

Fortunately, some people do read the research. And I don’t mean me. After all, I’m only a journalist. Our intrepid hero here is Dr Brian Hughes of the National University of Ireland. His blog, The Science Bit, points out that the authors repeatedly say that causality is assumed. The research is not asking the question ‘does alcohol cause cancer’, but ‘assuming alcohol causes cancer, how much do you have to drink to get it’.

Now, it’s well established that alcohol does cause certain kinds of cancer. The problem is that, as Dr Hughes – and me - argue, attempts to isolate alcohol as a sole cause of many cancers is doomed to failure. Life, not to mention death, is too complicated.

Still, the BMJ feels confident enough to conclude that “these data support current political efforts to reduce or to abstain from alcohol consumption”.

But is the policy based on the evidence or the evidence based on the policy?

Despite the government’s claims that its health reforms and cuts will not affect the NHS frontline, jobs are already being lost – including jobs in cancer treatment.

Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could cheaply prevent cancer by modifying our lifestyles, by stopping drinking, for instance? And isn’t it convenient that research comes along that says just that?

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