A new 6 million pound NHS campaign to reveal alcohol’s hidden effects warns people of the unseen damage caused by regularly drinking more than the advised limits and highlights drinkers’ affected organs while they sup their drink in the pub or at home.

The campaign was launched recently by Public Health Minister, Gillian Merron. It forms part of a government-wide strategy to tackle the harmful effects of alcohol and is backed by major health charities.

Merron said in a press statement that:

“Many of us enjoy a drink – drinking sensibly isn’t a problem.” But, she warned that:

“If you’re regularly drinking more than the NHS recommended limits, you’re more likely to get cancer, have a stroke or have a heart attack.”

The Department of Health developed the campaign with Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Stroke Association. Part of it entails showing a series of strong messages on TV, in the press and outdoor posters, showing how much harm drinking more than the NHS advised daily limit can do to your body.

In the TV campaign, one advert of three men drinking in a pub, shows one of them with a semi-transparent body, and as he sups his beer, different organs are highlighted to show which parts the narrator, who is explaining the risks of drinking alcohol, is talking about (for example, when high blood pressure is mentioned, the heart becomes more visible).

The NHS advises that women should drink no more than 2 to 3 units of alcohol a day (about 2 small glasses of wine) and men should drink no more than 3 to 4 a day(about two pints of lager).

In the UK, a unit of alcohol is 10 millilitres of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and the strength of an alcoholic drink (the amount of ethyl alcohol it contains) is shown in percentage ABV (alcohol by volume). So every increase of 1% ABV adds another unit of alcohol to a litre: one litre of a drink of 1% ABV contains one unit of alcohol, one litre of 2% per cent ABV drink is 2 units, one litre of 3% ABV is 3 units, and so on.

However, most alcoholic drinks are stronger than 1 or 2% ABV and you don’t have to drink a litre to consume several units. For instance, one pint (just over half a litre) of beer at 4% ABV contains 2.3 units, and half a 0.75 litre bottle of wine at 13% ABV contains 4.9 units.

A recent YouGov poll of more than 2,000 adults showed that more than half (55 per cent) of drinkers in England mistakenly believe that alcohol only does harm if you regularly binge or get drunk.

The survey also revealed that 83 per cent of adults who drank more than the NHS advised daily limit don’t believe their drinking is putting their long- term health at risk.

This suggests that 8.3 of the 10 million adults in England who regularly drink above the recommended limit are probably unaware of how much damage their drinking is doing to their bodies, said the NHS.

Although the vast majority of those surveyed realised that alcohol consumption is linked to liver disease, few realised it is also linked to throat cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer, stroke and heart disease.

This is in spite of evidence from research that shows, for example:

  • A man who regularly drinks more than two pints of lager a day is three times more likely to have a stroke or mouth cancer.
  • A woman who regularly drinks more than two glasses of wine a day is 50 per cent more likely to get breast cancer, and twice as likely to have high blood pressure (which could lead to a heart attack).

According to figures from the Department of Health, over 9,000 people in the UK die from alcohol-related causes every year. Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that 20 per cent of alcohol-related deaths are from cancer, 15 per cent are from cardiovascular conditions like heart disease and stroke, and 13 per cent are from liver disease.

Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, said that it was important for people to “realise the harm they, unknowingly, can cause to their health by regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits.”

“This campaign gives people the facts about the effect alcohol can have on their body and provides support for people who choose to drink less,” he added.

Director of Communications for The Stroke Association, Joe Korner, said:

“We are pleased to be involved in this campaign because it alerts people to the long term health risks of regular heavy drinking.”

Korner said that stroke is the biggest cause of severe disability in adults and affects about 150,000 people every year in the UK, so it is vital that people understand that regularly drinking above the recommended daily limit means they are more likely to have high blood pressure, the single biggest risk factor for stroke.

The British Heart Foundation’s Associate Medical Director, Dr Mike Knapton, urged that while there is some evidence that sensible drinking in moderation appears to offer some protection against heart disease, this should not be seen as a reason to take up drinking:

“There are better ways to protect yourself from heart disease,” he said.

“The evidence is clear, regularly drinking above the recommended daily limits harms the heart as well as causing a host of other harmful effects,” said Knapton.

Sara Hiom, director of health information for Cancer Research UK said that decades of research has shown that alcohol can raise the risk of several cancers, including cancer of the bowel, breast, liver, mouth, foodpipe (oesophagus), voicebox (larynx) and throat.

“Our bodies convert alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde which can lead to cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage,” explained Hiom, adding that another side effect of alcohol consumption is raised levels of estrogen which increases the risk of breast cancer.

“The simple message is that the more you drink the greater your cancer risk but the more you cut down the more you reduce that risk,” said Hiom.

— Alcohol’s hidden effects, more information, toolkit (NHS)

Sources: Department of Health.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD