Even light drinking can lead to breast cancer, WHO expert warns

New framework for Europe envisages 20 per cent reduction in harmful use of alcohol by end of this decade

One in every four breast cancers that are attributed to alcohol are the result of “light to moderate” drinking, a World Health Organisation seminar in Dublin has been told.

Half of all alcohol-attributable cancers are not the result of heavy drinking, Dr Carina Fereirra-Borges, programme manager for alcohol at WHO Europe, told the seminar.

“It’s not what people want us to believe, that this is not only about people who drink a lot. For the majority of (alcohol-attributable) breast cancers you have about one-quarter attributable to light drinking - about two glasses a week,” she said.

The WHO European Framework for Action on Alcohol, agreed by Ireland and other countries in the region in September, envisages a 20 per cent reduction in harmful use of alcohol by 2030.

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The seminar organised by WHO and hosted by the Department of Health discussed ways of implementing the new framework across Europe.

Europe has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world and the highest proportion of drinkers. One out of every 10 deaths in the region - one million a year - is the result of alcohol use.

Dr Fereirra-Borges said talk of the “harmful use” of alcohol was no longer acceptable, though difficult to remove from official plans, because there is no acceptable level of alcohol use. She welcomed Ireland’s plans to include a cancer warning on alcohol products.

Public awareness of the health problems linked to alcohol consumption is often low, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the seminar.

Mr Martin said the reduction of the health harms caused by alcohol has been a priority of successive governments in Ireland since publication of a report on the national substance misuse strategy in 2012.

The Government’s current focus is on labelling of alcohol products, he said. “The research on alcohol labelling has found that labels prompt consumers to engage in more discussion about the health risks of drinking alcohol, such as those associated with drinking during pregnancy.

“Unfortunately, the level of public awareness of many of the health problems associated with alcohol consumption, such as the cancer risk can be quite low.”

The Government has implemented 26 of the 31 provisions of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, including minimum unit pricing, which came into operation last January, Mr Martin said, speaking in a pre-recorded video message.

No reference was made at the seminar to the Government’s plans to liberalise licensing laws by allowing pubs and nightclubs to open for longer hours. The proposed measure appears to contradict the WHO framework’s aim to reduce availability of alcohol through restricting times and days of sale, and limiting the number of outlets.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times