Should Alcohol Have Warning Labels About Cancer Risk? Most Americans Say ‘Yes’

Three glasses with ice and a beverage in them
January 20, 2022

Fewer than half of Americans understand that alcohol consumption increases cancer risk, and a majority of people surveyed say they would support warning labels and drinking guidelines to increase awareness.

Among 3,865 Americans surveyed by mail (a sample representative of the U.S. population), 65.1% supported added warning labels to alcohol packaging, and a slightly smaller percentage – 63.9% – backed drinking guidelines. A much smaller percentage – 34.4% – supported banning outdoor alcohol advertising.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who said they were aware of the alcohol-cancer link were more likely to support such measures than those who believed there was no risk, or that drinking decreased risk. There was also less support among heavy drinkers.

“It is encouraging that a majority of U.S. adults are supportive of information about the risk of alcohol being provided to consumers,” said assistant professor Kara P. Wiseman of the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences and UVA Cancer Center. “An important next step in this research will be to determine what types of messages are able to best convey information about alcohol’s harms as they relate to cancer.”

Alcohol and Cancer Risk

While moderate alcohol consumption was in the past thought to be associated with some health benefits, such as potentially reducing the risk of heart disease by a small degree, alcohol has also been found to increase the risk of seven different cancers, including breast, colon and mouth cancer. As consumption increases, so does cancer risk. In 2016, cancers attributed to alcohol were responsible for approximately 378,000 deaths worldwide.

To gauge public awareness of the alcohol-cancer link, Wiseman and colleagues analyzed responses to the 2020 Health Information National Trends Survey. Only 20.3% of respondents were aware that wine consumption actually increased cancer risk. Slightly more – 24.9% – associated beer drinking with increased cancer risk, and 31.2% said liquor consumption increased cancer risk. 

The survey revealed broad support for campaigns to increase awareness, prompting the researchers to call for such efforts to be implemented. “Collectively, these findings suggest that increasing awareness of the alcohol-cancer link may increase alcohol control policy support, which may ultimately expedite policy adoption and implementation,” the researchers write in a paper outlining their findings. “Furthermore, [more than] 50% of Americans are unaware that alcohol affects cancer risk. Efforts are clearly needed to inform the public about this important modifiable cancer risk factor.”

Kara P. Wiseman headshot

One option to increase awareness could be for doctors to talk to their patients about the alcohol-cancer link. In prior research, Wiseman and collaborators found that only 44.1% of patients surveyed reported that their doctor had discussed the harms of alcohol in the last 12 months. However, those who had discussed the harms of alcohol were more likely to report awareness of alcohol increasing cancer risk. 

“It is important that people are made fully aware of the potential harms of alcohol so that they may make informed decisions about alcohol consumption,” said Wiseman, who is also part of UVA’s Center for Behavioral Health and Technology. “By identifying ways to support consistent discussion about alcohol between providers and patients, and developing messaging about the potential harms of alcohol, we may be able to begin to address an important cancer risk factor.”

This type of public education for cancer prevention is an important mission of UVA Cancer Center, which on Feb. 1 becomes one of only 52 cancer centers in the country to be designated as a “Comprehensive Cancer Center” by the National Cancer Institute. The designation recognizes elite cancer centers with the most outstanding cancer programs in the nation. Comprehensive Cancer Centers must meet extremely rigorous standards for innovative research and leading-edge clinical trials. 

In earning the designation, UVA Cancer Center becomes the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in Virginia.

Findings Published

Wiseman and her colleagues have published their latest findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The research team consisted of Andrew B. Seidenberg, Wiseman, Raimee H. Eck, Kelly D. Blake, Heather N. Platter and William M.P. Klein.

The study examining the role of doctors in communicating alcohol’s cancer risk was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. That paper was by Wiseman, Seidenberg and Klein.

The Health Information National Trends Survey was supported by the National Cancer Institute. Wiseman’s work is partially supported by UVA’s iTHRIV Scholars Program. The iTHRIV program is supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, grants UL1TR003015 and KL2TR003016, as well as by UVA. 

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health