Ethanol 'akin to asbestos in cancer stakes'

Last updated 09:51 01/07/2013

ENJOYABLE: Alcohol is a popular social lubricant but heavy drinking is linked to cancer.

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New Zealand's excessive drinking culture is causing cancers with abysmally low survival rates, oncology experts say.

The Cancer Society of New Zealand says Kiwis are only now sobering up to the link between alcohol and cancer, just as we did more than 30 years ago with smoking and lung cancer.

Strong links between drinking more than two or three standard drinks a day have been established to deadly digestive tract cancers including mouth, throat, larynx and oesophageal cancers.

There are also strong links between alcohol and bowel, breast and prostate cancers.

The warning comes on as some Kiwis sign up for Dry July, a month without drinking alcohol. Those taking part are encouraged to sign up sponsors in support of cancer services.

Health Ministry statistics show in the decade to 2009, a total of 2719 New Zealanders were diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

Just 435 survived - a survival rate of around 16 per cent.

The oesophagus, the tube connecting the throat to the stomach, is so close to vital organs that cancer spreads quickly.

Dr Jan Pearson, of the Cancer Society, said it was time Kiwis started talking about the risks of excessive drinking.

"We are probably at the stage now that we were at 30 years ago with tobacco," she said.

She said lung cancer still caused a high number of deaths with a 20-year time lag from when NZ still had high smoking rates.

Otago University public health professor Tony Blakely said alcohol "absolutely" contributed to cancer rates.

"Alcohol has more obvious impacts on injuries, deaths, social bedlam, unwanted pregnancies and suicides," he said.

"It's ubiquitous in our culture."

Excessive drinking significantly increased the risk of developing cancer, he said, alongside genetics and an unhealthy lifestyle.

Professor Doug Sellman, of the National Addiction Centre, said that 25 per cent of alcohol-related deaths "are actually cancer deaths."

"The ethanol in alcohol is a group one carcinogen, like asbestos," he said.

The Health Promotion Agency advises you can reduce long-term health risks by drinking no more than:


● Two standard drinks a day and no more than 10 standard drinks a week


● Three standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week

● Have at least two alcohol-free days every week.

● One standard drink is equivalent to one glass of wine or one 330ml bottle of beer.

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