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Children must be told risks of alcohol abuse, says GP

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 23/07/2016

Concerns: GP George O’Neill
Concerns: GP George O’Neill

Urgent action must be taken to invest more in educating children across Northern Ireland about the life-threatening impact of alcohol abuse, an addiction expert has warned.

The comments from west Belfast GP and chair of Addiction NI George O'Neill came after a study of existing research found strong evidence of a direct link between drinking and cancer.

Scientists remain unsure of the biological reasons why alcohol causes cancer, but writing in the journal Addiction, Jennie Connor, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, said that alcohol was estimated to have caused about 500,000 deaths from cancer in 2012 alone - 5.8% of cancer deaths worldwide.

There are seven types of cancer linked to alcohol - bowel, oesophageal, larynx, mouth, pharynx, breast and liver.

The highest danger comes from heavy drinking, but even people who drink at low levels are at risk.

Dr O'Neill, an ex-adviser to the former Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, said the research was helpful, but he also questioned whether it would have an impact on people reducing their alcohol intake.

"It once again raises the profile of the problems we face because of alcohol," he explained.

"Will it be deterable? Probably not. It increases the knowledge base, so people can make more informed choices.

"My view is that we really have to educate our young people on how to deal with life events and how they cope in school.

"We should be discussing problems like alcohol abuse, like prescribed and illegal drugs."

In her report, Miss Connor added that the supposed health benefits of drinking - such as the widespread claim that red wine is good for the heart - were "seen increasingly as disingenuous or irrelevant in comparison to the increase in risk of a range of cancers".

For every 1,000 women who do not drink, 109 will develop breast cancer. This rises to 126 women for those who drink 14 units or less per week, and to 153 women for those who drink 14 to 35 units a week.

Scientists are currently researching how alcohol can lead to cancer. One theory is that it damages DNA.

Drinking among older men in Northern Ireland has soared by 40% and among women by 100% in the past two decades.

Addiction NI said the problem equated to one in 10 women and one in every five men over the age of 60.

Both Addiction NI and the charity FASA said that alcohol abuse cost £900m a year.

In a recent report, they claimed that the cost of alcohol-related harm equated to a tenth of Northern Ireland's block grant from Westminster.

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