August 30, 2019

Alcohol and breast cancer: Australians need to know

cancer cells under microscope
One in five breast cancers are linked to alcohol consumption.1

However, only 19% of Australians, according to research conducted by the Cancer Council of Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research,2 were aware of the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer – and this link is significant.

Alcohol is also a significant risk factor for seven other types of cancer, and this risk increases as the consumption of alcohol increases.

Australians need to be aware of these risks so that they can make educated decisions.

Australians need the facts about alcohol and cancer

Alcohol is legal and it is the most commonly used drug in Australia.

People over the age of 18 years choose to consume it or not.

Consumers of any product should be fully aware of the risks associated with it in order to make an informed decision. Yet, with research showing that Australians don’t have all the facts about alcohol and cancer, 3,4 how can anyone accurately consider the risks?

The facts about alcohol and cancer are relevant for everyone. Cancer will affect the lives of most Australians in some way, whether they battle the disease themselves or support a friend or family member through their fight.

Breast cancer alone – one of the most common cancers for women - was diagnosed in 16,852 Australian women and 145 Australian men in 2015.5

Thankfully, cancer awareness – including awareness of risk factors – is increasing largely due to the efforts of a huge range of people and organisations including survivors, grieving friends and family, charities and research bodies, governments and private businesses.

Efforts to raise awareness, like the Drink Less, Live More campaign from Cancer Council Victoria are underway, and the messages need to be heard by all Australians.

However, the alcohol industry’s efforts to leverage cancer awareness may be confusing public health messages about the cancer risks of alcohol.

Causes are being co-opted by the alcohol industry

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, supported and promoted by countless individuals, organisations and initiatives across the country.

The iconic pink ribbon associated with breast cancer awareness and research is central to activities like the Breast Cancer Network Australia’s Pink Sports Day, which raises awareness and collects donations to support Australian women affected by breast cancer. The pink ribbon symbolises support and solidarity, hope for a cure, and is associated with healthy living.3

But the pink ribbon is also being used as part of disingenuous marketing campaigns where the colour pink and pink ribbon motifs are used to broadcast that a company is supporting those affected by breast cancer – even if their product is linked to cancer.6,7

This can confuse consumers who may then associate the product with supporting breast cancer research instead of associating the product with increasing the risk of cancer.

The irony of donating to charities dedicated to curing cancer that their own product is linked to is unlikely to be lost on the alcohol industry.

And it’s not only Breast Cancer Awareness month that is being co-opted – the alcohol industry’s efforts to leverage International Women’s Day as well as Dry July have also been criticised.

Initiatives like #Dontpinkmydrink and Think Before You Pink are actively calling out the alcohol industry, and other industries linked to cancers, for ‘pink-washing’. These initiatives encourage consumers to think critically before they buy.

The most important message is that alcohol is linked to cancers such as breast cancer, and Australians need to understand the risks in order to make an educated decision about alcohol consumption.

Sharing these messages with loved ones is critical to ensure all Australians have the facts about alcohol and cancer so that they can make the best choices for themselves and their families.

Key points

  1. Winstanley MH, Pratt IS, Chapman K, Griffin HJ, Croager EJ, Olver IN, Sinclair C, Slevin TJ. Alcohol and cancer: a position statement from Cancer Council Australia. Medical Journal of Australia. 2011 May;194(9):479-82.
  2. Cancer Council Victoria. Graphic ad shows the lasting effects of alcohol. 2019 Feb [cited 2019 Aug 21].
  3. Buykx P, Gilligan C, Ward B, Kippen R, Chapman K. Public support for alcohol policies associated with knowledge of cancer risk. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2015 Apr 1;26(4):371-9.
  4. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. 2019 Annual alcohol poll: Attitudes and behaviours. 2019 May [cited 2019 Aug 21].
  5. Cancer Council. Breast Cancer. 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 21].
  6. Lubitow A, Davis M. Pastel injustice: The corporate use of pinkwashing for profit. Environmental Justice. 2011 Jun 1;4(2):139-44.
  7. Mart S, Giesbrecht N. Red flags on pinkwashed drinks: contradictions and dangers in marketing alcohol to prevent cancer. Addiction. 2015 Oct;110(10):1541-8.

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