Martin Scorsese drops in

Doha diary, part 2

You see them everywhere you go in Doha, especially in the West Bay area where the festival hotels are located: yellow American school buses. At dusk (which falls in the late afternoon here), the buses line up outside the building sites, waiting for the migrant labourers -- the vast majority of them from south Asia -- who work on the behemoths that will soon be hotels and office blocks. In the shopping malls (which are the main gathering places in Doha, as there's not much public space), long lines of migrants queue to send remittances home to their families.

Expats are integral to the Qatari economy. Although the available figures aren't precise, it's thought they outnumber citizens of the emirate by nearly three to one. The W Doha hotel, where I'm staying, is a case in point. Safak Guvenc, the hotel's manager, who is himself Turkish, told me that he employs people of 62 different nationalities, many of whom live together in a company "village" a 20-minute bus ride away. The majority were recruited by Guvenc and his colleagues in what the company's benignly Orwellian argot calls "talent shows" held in the workers' home countries -- Malaysia and the Philippines, in particular.

I was keen to talk to Guvenc about the "village", but unpicking the hard sell about how the W "brand" fuses the "local" and "global" was difficult, and, in any case, he really wanted to talk about Martin Scorsese, who'd shown up at the hotel for drinks last night. Along with most of the festival "talent", Scorsese is staying at the Four Seasons just along the bay. Having wandered along to have a look at the Four Seasons this afternoon, I can understand why he might have been eager to escape: the principal architectural influence on it appears, from the outside at least, to have been Ceaucescu-era Bucharest. The W building, meanwhile, does watered-down Las Vegas like nearly everyone else.

Scorsese doesn't have a film in the festival. Among the leading American directors who do is Steven Soderbergh, whose film The Informant, which opens in the UK next week, I went to see earlier this evening. Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistleblower at ADM, a pillar of Midwestern agribusiness. The film looks as though it's going to be a standard-issue corporate conspiracy drama (I thought I detected a nod or two in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece of Seventies paranoia The Conversation in the title sequence). But then it rather elegantly transforms itself into a psychological comedy, in which the extravagant subterfuges Whitacre perpetrates both on himself (Damon plays him as a genius of self-delusion) and others (including the FBI) turn out to be much more important than the price-fixing scandal that put him in the orbit of the Feds in the first place.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.