That glass of wine with dinner? It could lead to cancer according to Canada’s new “Guidance on Alcohol and Health.” Photo by Michael Swan

Alcohol warnings go beyond public health

  • January 26, 2023

If you know you’re risking cancer, if what you’re doing damages cells throughout your body and degrades your DNA — that basic building block of life that scientist Francis Crick, head of the human genome project, called “the language of God” — would you keep doing it?

For a Catholic, that’s a serious question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church urges Catholics to take their personal health and the health of their communities seriously.

“Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good,” reads paragraph 2288 of the Catechism.

So a push from scientists to put public health warnings on bottles of beer, wine and spirits isn’t just a public health policy question for Catholics. It’s a moral question, said moral theologian John Berkman of the Regis-St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology in the University of Toronto.

“First, there’s an individual responsibility to care for one’s health. If one understands life as a gift given by God, then one has a responsibility to receive the gift with an appropriate degree of gratitude — therefore, looking after that gift,” said Berkman. 

Collectively, Catholic social teaching would demand that society protect the health and well-being of the weak with strong public health measures, said bioethicist, physician and retired oncologist Sr. Nuala Kenny. 

“We all need to become more attentive to health promotion and disease prevention,” Kenny said in an email. “It’s not only for the wealthy who are health obsessed but for all, especially for the poor and socially disadvantaged.”

Canada’s new “Guidance on Alcohol and Health” from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has sparked a certain amount of resistance, confusion, doubt and debate by insisting no amount of alcohol is safe and that consuming any more than two drinks per week increases the risk of cancer among other problems. The scientific panel that recommends public health measures to government is asking for mandatory labels on containers of alcohol, pointing out the increased risk of three to six drinks per week and the elevated risks associated with anything greater than six drinks per week. It would put a glass of wine in the same public health category as cigarettes. 

It’s the first time the CCSA has issued guidelines on alcohol since 2011. The new guidance is based on a systematic survey of nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed studies.

New mandatory labels for the Canadian market just won’t fly with the international wine industry, said Cribari Vineyards president John F. Cribari.

“They’re going to have a hard time, because all the people from Europe, from California, all the wine countries, they’re not going to do that,” Cribari said from Fresno, California. 

Cribrari, one of the world’s leading producers of Mass wines, already does relabel its products for the European market, at a cost of up to $5 per case.

Unlike Canadian alcohol, U.S. wine, beer and spirits already carry a “Government Warning.” These warn women should not drink during pregnancy and that alcohol impairs the ability to drive, operate machinery and may cause health problems.

But the proposed Canadian health warnings would go further and get more specific in warning of cancer risks. 

Most people don’t know that alcohol damages DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic code found in every cell of your body). It does this by metabolizing alcohol into acetaldehyde. This chemical is toxic to cells. The damage acetaldehyde causes to DNA can then cause cells to grow out of control — in a word, cancer.

But that’s not the only way alcohol damages DNA. A process called “oxidative stress” injures the internal systems meant to repair the damage caused by various toxins. Alcohol is a toxin which can lead to stiffened arteries, higher blood pressure and coronary artery disease.

In all, researchers have linked alcohol to seven kinds of cancer — head and neck cancers that invade the oral cavity, pharynx and larynx, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Research into alcohol’s possible role in pancreatic and prostate cancer is ongoing.

None of this research is about the gross levels of alcohol abuse associated with alcoholism. It’s about normal, occasional, social drinking. 

As for the supposed good news on red wine — that a glass a day increases HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol — scientists have had a second look at those studies. It turns out that the kind of people who drink a good red wine in moderation with their Mediterranean meals are very likely to have other good habits.

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