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Health Impacts of Alcohol - Should The Public Know?

MEDIA RELEASE – 25th July 2013

Should the public be allowed to know about the health impacts of alcohol?

A major report on the effects of alcohol on the health of the New Zealand populations was released last week by the Health Promotion Agency (Alcohol-attributable burden of disease and injury in New Zealand: 2004 and 2007) demonstrating that approximately 800 premature deaths every year in New Zealand are attributable to drinking alcohol. Thirty per cent of those deaths are due to cancers of various kinds.

Professor Ian Shaw of the University of Canterbury thinks that releasing this report shows that the researchers “need to gain perspective” (The Press 18 July), because people die on the roads as well and it doesn’t stop us driving. In fact, driving is one of the most regulated activities that members of the general public participate in, and regulation has had the effect of reducing the road toll from 795 in 1987 to 259 in 2011 despite the huge increase in cars. Around thirty percent of the current road carnage is alcohol-related, and the Ministry of Transport’s Road Safety Strategy 2010-2020 states: “Lowering the adult drink-drive limit would be the strongest initiative in the area of safe road use”.

Professor Shaw attacks the credibility of the researchers (which include the lead members of the World Health Organization Global Burden of Disease 2010 Risk Factors Collaborating Group on Alcohol) by stating that “it was not actually known if alcohol was carcinogenic”, and that it is important to know what particular type of alcohol (meaning beverage) was involved. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the vast body of international research that underlies studies of this kind, and that alcohol (ethanol) is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer. Beverage type has been subject to much research and is irrelevant when discussing the health impacts of alcohol.

What is known from the accumulated scientific evidence that has been synthesised in the new report is that in New Zealand, alcohol consumption is one of the most important risk factors for avoidable mortality and disease in early and middle adulthood, and contributes substantially to loss of good health across the life course. This is due to the toxic properties of alcohol and to the pattern of alcohol drinking in New Zealand. The way to reduce the harm is to reduce heavy drinking.

Fortunately we know what is effective in reducing heavy drinking in populations and that is having controls on alcohol price and availability, and getting rid of alcohol marketing.

Professor Shaw asserts: ''Both risk and benefit should be balanced to draw sensible conclusions. Another benefit is enjoyment - this should not be discounted either.''

New Zealanders do need to know the risks. They are constantly bombarded with slick alcohol advertising telling them, as Professor Shaw does now too, that the risks are unproven and the benefits are huge. The facts paint a quite different picture of significant risks and grossly overstated benefits.


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