In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Donald Spoto, Helen Lewis on Grace Coddington and Claire Lowdon on Nancy Huston.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell reviews The Redgraves: a Family Epic by Donald Spoto. Although the book is billed as a biography of a theatrical dynasty, it is in fact focused almost exclusively on the pater familias, Michael Redgrave. “As seems to have been the case in life,” Churchwell writes, “[Michael Redgrave] is the centre, the rest of the family the orbiting moons.” Spoto pays particular attention to Redgrave’s bisexuality. “Spoto strongly implies that Redgrave’s primary erotic energies were directed toward men.” Though, Churchwell points out, “he also had several long-term sexual relationships with women.” There is a more serious problem with Spoto’s book, however. “By the end,” Churchwell notes, “his generally admiring tone has become positively hagiographic … [I]t is time for celebrity biographies to begin to aspire to something more commensurate with the power of their subjects.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Grace: a Memoir by the creative director of US Vogue, Grace Coddington (“Coddington’s crashing lack of interest in anything non-fashion-related begins to grate”); Claire Lowdon reviews Infrared by Nancy Huston, the novel that this week won Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award (“The sex – there is a lot of sex – is truly terrible, worse than DH Lawrence on a bad day”); Michael Sayeau reviews Travels in China by Roland Barthes (“Barthes took [his trip to China in 1974] as an opportunity to experience a real-life manifestation of the politics that he, at a safe distance, had espoused”); Bryan Appleyard reviews Inside the Centre, Ray Monk’s biography of the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppenheimer’s [career can be seen] as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside”); and Peter Popham pays tribute to Sir Geoffrey Hill at 80, Britain’s best living poet.

Elsewhere in the Critics: “The Coup”, a short story by Tom Rachman; Ryan Gilbey on Seven Psychopaths, directed by Martin McDonagh; Alexandra Coghlan on English National Opera’s Carmen; Rachel Cooke on Christmas television adverts; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Michael Redgrave with his three children Vanessa, Lynn and Corin. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
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.