Alcohol: poison or tonic?

Alcohol: poison or tonic?

As people raise money for Pink Ribbon Day across the country this month we are faced with the grim reality that alcohol is a cause of breast cancer¹. What’s perhaps more worrying is that this isn’t understood by many women according to a recent Newspoll survey conducted on behalf of Cancer Australia. These results are concerning, especially as we enter the party season when throngs of people across Australia may be drinking alcohol without understanding the full effects.

Perhaps one of the reasons many people keep drinking to excess is because there is a general confusion about the effect of alcohol on health. There have been many studies in this area, showing that alcohol has both positive – for example the link between red wine and heart disease² – and negative effects on health and the media has reported the results of both. However, when it comes to modifying drinking habits, guidelines from health organisations rather than reports of single studies is where we should turn for clear advice.

Although the link between alcohol and cancer isn’t widely understood, evidence of this link has been mounting from a number of significant studies. The World Cancer Research Fund now says the evidence that alcoholic drinks are a cause of breast cancer at all ages is ‘convincing’¹. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans also specifically point out that moderate alcohol intake is associated with increased risk of breast cancer³. This is a sobering fact when 37 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every day⁴.

In contrast, while the media has revelled in reporting that red wine protects against heart disease, the World Health Organisation does not suggest that alcohol be used for the management of cardiovascular risk and has found serious faults in the studies that do².

But in any health debate it’s easy to get caught up in what might prove fatal and lose sight of ensuring we live a good quality of life. While it’s becoming clearer that alcohol plays a role in causing some of the most serious diseases of our time, the short-term effects of binge drinking are well known. The correlation between alcohol and violence and alcohol and hangovers is not only proven, it’s experienced by millions of people around the world every day. You don’t need a scientist to tell you that if you drink a lot, you will probably feel awful the next day. Perhaps the claim that alcohol is a poison in this spoof beer commercial isn’t that far from the truth.

The reality is that alcohol is not a medicine. Like all drugs, there is no safe level of alcohol use. Cancer Council Australia has brought together the results of a number of studies and says, ‘any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing alcohol-related cancer; the level of risk increases in line with the level of consumption’⁵.

Australia has relied on alcohol for far too long to help us have a good time. As we learn more and more about how it really affects us, we need to take time to consider what else we can do to have fun, especially as we approach a time of year when drinking often gets out of hand.

GrogWatch is keen to hear your ideas on how to counter the idea that alcohol is good for you.


1. World Cancer Research Fund; American Institute for Cancer Research, 2010. Continuous improvement update project report: food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of breast cancer, [s.l.]: World Cancer Research Fund.

2. World Health Organisation, 2007. Prevention of cardiovascular disease: Guideline for assessment and management of cardiovascular risk, Switzerland: World Health Organisation, pp.37-38.

3. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.

4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2012. Breast cancer in Australia: an overview, Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

5. Cancer Council Australia, 2012. Position statement: Alcohol and cancer risk, Australia: Cancer Council Australia.