Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

National Gallery, London WC2, Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan until 5 December

This long-awaited exhibition is the most complete display of Leonardo's rare surviving paintings and drawings ever held. It focuses on Da Vinci's commitment to represent the human form. The exciting exhibition includes a near-contemporary, full-scale copy of The Last Supper, on loan from the Royal Academy.

Comedy

The O2, London SE1, Allah Made Me Funny 11 November

Due to public demand after a sold out show at HMV Hammersmith Apollo in 2009, Allah Made Me Funny returns for the "World Domination Tour" this November. The show uses stand up comedy to challenge social prejudices on religion. Special guests will make an appearance too.

Music

Koko, London NW1, Guillemots 17 November

The British indie band, formed in November 2004 by Fyfe Dangerfield, are making Camden the last stop of their UK tour, with tickets priced at £17.50 each. The tour follows the critically acclaimed third album Walk the River of April 2011.

Theatre

National Theatre, London SE1, Collaborators until 31 March 2012

The screenwriter John Hodge, best known for Trainspotting, makes his theatre debut. Set in Moscow in 1938, the play imagines what happened when Bulgakov was forcibly commissioned to write a play to celebrate Stalin's 60th birthday. Inspired by historical events, the play is often surreal and enters the imagination of the writer as he loses himself in a hilarious and disturbing relationship with Stalin. Alex Jennings plays Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale plays Stalin.

Talks

Frontline Club, London W2, Reflections: Alex Crawford 17 November

A Sky News Special Correspondent since 1989, Alex Crawford was the first journalist to make it into Tripoli after it fell to rebel forces. After she travelled with rebel forces, her coverage in Libya won her widespread acclaim. Crawford will discuss her fascinating career as a foreign correspondent with the former BBC executive Vin Ray.

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.