Behind the headlines: Is alcohol to blame for rising oral cancer rates?

Rates of cancers of the mouth, tongue and lip among people in their forties have risen rapidly over the past decade, media reports have claimed.

Diagnoses have increased by 28 per cent in men and by 24 per cent in women since the mid-1990s, figures complied by Cancer Research UK for rates of oral cancer in Britain in 2007 show.

Each year around 5,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer and about 1,800 die from it.

The cancer can be treated successfully if caught early, with warning signs including ulcers, sores, and red or white patches in the mouth lasting for more than three weeks.

What is behind the rise?
Although smoking is the main cause of oral cancer, the rise in cases appears to be fuelled by the excessive consumption of alcohol.

Hazel Nunn, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: 'Tobacco is the main risk factor for oral cancer. But for people in their forties, other factors are contributing to this jump in oral cancer rates.

'Alcohol consumption has doubled since the 1950s and the trend we are now seeing is very likely to be linked to Britain's continually rising drinking levels.'

Ms Nunn said that since cancers caused by smoking often take around 30 years to develop, tobacco use could not be the main reason behind the increase.

She added that a diet lacking in fruit and vegetables, as well as the spread of HPV, could also be risk factors for oral cancer.

What do other researchers say?
Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance said: 'These latest figures demonstrate once again that people are being struck down at ever younger ages with alcohol-related illnesses that they might never have previously associated with heavy drinking.

'There is a need to rethink how we communicate the risks of misuse. The first step is to challenge the widespread notion that the only chronic health damage is suffered by a minority of older drinkers.'

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: 'Alcoholic liver disease is the number one killer linked to alcohol, and more people are suffering from oral cancers - record drinking levels have played a part.'

sanjay.tanday@haymarket.com

UK Informing Patients

  • Excessive alcohol consumption has been blamed for a rise in cases of oral cancer.
  • GPs should advise patients to limit their drinking and to look out for warning signs.
  • Smoking, poor diet and the HPV virus are risk factors.

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