A cancer charity said on Monday that if people in the UK who regularly drank a large glass of wine a day were to switch to a lower alcohol alternative they could reduce their risk of bowel cancer by seven per cent.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), a charity that aims to raise awareness that cancer is largely preventable and find ways to help people make choices to reduce their chances of developing the disease, calculated that this would be the likely benefit of switching from regularly consuming a large (250 ml) glass of 14 per cent wine every day to a weaker wine containing only 10 per cent alcohol.

Science Programme Manager for WCRF, Dr Rachel Thompson, told the media that:

“From a cancer prevention point of view it is best not to drink at all. But we have to be realistic and the fact is that many people in the UK enjoy a drink and see it as part of their social life.”

She said if you drink a lot, then you should really reduce the amount, but if you don’t want to do this, then the next best thing is to switch to a lower alcohol alternative.

“Making this change might seem quite minor do, but it could have a real impact on cancer risk,” said Thompson.

“If everyone who drinks 14 per cent wine at the moment switched to lower-alcohol wine tomorrow, for example, it is likely hundreds of cancer cases in the UK a year could be prevented,” she added.

The WCRF said in a statement that:

“For cancer prevention, it is best not to drink any alcohol at all; but modest amounts may have a protective effect for heart disease.”

Take bowel cancer, for example, the WCRF calculated that the seven per cent reduction in risk of bowel cancer gained by drinking 10 per cent instead of 14 per cent alcoholic wine, translates roughly to a reduction from six people in 100 in the UK getting the disease to five people.

They said that switching to lower-strength alcohol wine also reduces the risk of a number of other cancers, including of the breast, liver, oesophagus, mouth, pharynx and larynx.

The risk reduction fo these canc is thought to be about the same as for bowel cancer, they said, adding that studies show about 20,000 cases of cancer in the UK every year are linked to alcohol, which is why they recommend if people want to drink alcohol, they should drink no more than two drinks a day for a man and one for a woman.

Thompson said while currently it may not be easy to find the lower strength alcohol in the shops, she thinks it will get easier because the food and drinks industry appears to be taking the issue more seriously, however she said the industry should be doing much more:

“We would like to see supermarkets and off-licenses make it easier for their customers to choose less unhealthy options,” said Thompson.

The WCRF gave some examples of where supermarkets are selling lower alcohol wines, for instance:

  • Tesco sells McGuigan Chardonnay, McGuigan Shiraz and De Bortoli Cosa Dolce Syrah-Dolcetto; all three are 9.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).
  • Marks and Spencer sells Ernst Loosen Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2008 (10% ABV) and Giardini Lower Alcohol Pinot Grigio 2008 (9.5% ABV).
  • Sainsbury’s sells Dr Loosen Riesling (8.5% ABV).
  • Majestic Wines sells the Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Kabinett 2001 (7.5% ABV).

“Of course, this does not just apply to wines,” said Thompson, “You can also reduce your cancer risk by switching from premium strength lager to weaker alternatives and this also applies to any alcoholic drink.”

At least one expert not connected with the WCRF agrees. Dr Peter Sasieni, who researches the statistics of cancer prevention statistics at Queen Mary’s University of London, told the BBC that while it was difficult to say exactly how much impact such a change in lifestyle would have on a person’s risk of developing cancer over the years, the general idea of reducing the alcoholic strength of what we drink is a good one.

“Given that alcohol can be bad for you even in fairly low amounts, that would start to suggest that people should take note of the percentage of alcohol in their wine,” said Sasieni, explaining that if you enjoy the 10 per cent ABV wine as much as the 14 per cent one, then “it makes sense” to go for the 10 per cent one.

Gavin Partington from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association told the BBC that while stronger wines from Argentina, Chile and Australia have gained in popularity, there appears also to be an emerging demand for lower alcohol wines, and that the industry was responding to this change in consumer demand.

Source: World Cancer Research Fund, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD