While our water crisis swirls around our community I attend a presentation on alcohol and its harmful effects by Professor Doug Sellman and Professor Jennie Connor.

Doug, director of the National Addiction Centre, University of Otago, Christchurch and medical spokesman for Alcohol Action NZ, is a well-known expert in his field.

Jennie is a University of Otago professor and epidemiologist. Their presentation, hosted by local HB Alcohol action group, is titled "Key facts about Alcohol and Cancer".

Aware of small but definite health improvements since undertaking a sober alcohol-free month of July (dry July) and cutting right back over August, I am interested to hear these recent findings regarding the harmful effects of alcohol.


Our presenters provide a summary of these recent studies. The room falls quiet as they present their sobering facts.

Alcohol is a neurotoxin which can cause brain damage, alcohol is fattening in moderate drinkers, alcohol cardio-protection has been talked up, alcohol decreases sexual performance, the social costs from alcohol misuse in New Zealand is in the billions of dollars, the alcohol industry lobbies the Government a lot more than the public knows about.

Much of the presentation is based on Jennie Connor's two prestigious publications in the past month. Her studies highlight the fact that alcohol causes cancer in moderate Kiwi drinkers.

In particular her studies find alcohol is a cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, large bowel and breast.

They also found alcohol quite possibly causes cancer of the pancreas, prostate and melanoma, although the evidence for these is not as strong at this point.
So what are the facts?

In 2007, 243 cancer deaths were attributable to alcohol. Of these, 126 were men and 117 women.

This represents 4.2 per cent of all cancer deaths - one in 25. Sixty per cent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths in women were due to breast cancer. This represents 14 per cent of all breast cancer deaths - one in seven.

There is no level of drinking that does not increase your risk of cancer to some extent, but heavier drinkers are more affected than light drinkers. Reducing your drinking will reduce your risk of cancer regardless of how much you drink now.


Alcohol does not increase the risk of all types of cancer.

About half of all alcohol-related cancer deaths occur in men and women who drink four standard drinks a day or less - about half a bottle of wine. More than a third of breast cancer cases are occurring in women drinking less than two standard drinks a day - about quarter of a bottle of wine.

The evidence that alcohol causes cancer is very strong; the evidence alcohol has any benefits for your heart is much weaker.

Listening to the presenters was interesting, enlightening and concerning. I must agree the alcohol industry, like the tobacco industry, has a responsibility to inform us of the potential health risks of its product. I have always wondered why, unlike other "foods", alcoholic beverages get away with not having to label what their beverage consists of such as sugar content. The message on a Steinlager Pure - "It is safest not to drink while pregnant" - is about as informative as it gets.

What is powerful for me is listening to the stories of those attending who clearly have been affected by alcohol.

Two women bravely provide us with a glimpse of what they must deal with when caring for their children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. After the presentation I approach these women to say how much I appreciate their frankness.

Despite these women speaking briefly, we were given a real sense of their personal challenges. These mothers are keen to better inform our community of the potential harmful effects of drinking, particularly when pregnant.

What I also learn from these women is our Hawke's Bay District Health Board is highly regarded when assisting families with children with complex issues.

So much so these families had both shifted to Hawke's Bay from Auckland to engage with our local children's health services.

They share with me that within weeks of being here in Hawke's Bay they felt better supported. This made me feel proud.

If anything our presenters could learn from this Hawke's Bay experience that it is often the grass-roots stories from individuals that are just as powerful as hearing the facts.

- Ana Apatu is chief executive of the U-Turn Trust, based at Te Aranga Marae in Flaxmere.