The Cambridge Union Society. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The NS debate: This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it

Key event at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April will pit Shiv Malik, Laurie Penny and Simon Heffer against Kwasi Kwarteng, Mansoor Hamayun and Allison Pearson on the question of inter-generational equality.

As part of its partnership with the newly re-launched Cambridge Literary Festival (formerly known as Cambridge Wordfest), the New Statesman will host a flagship debate on Saturday 5 April at the Cambridge Union Society. Chaired by Rafael Behr, Political Editor of the New Statesman, six of the country’s sharpest political thinkers will debate the motion: “This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it”.

Is this, contrary to received wisdom, an ideal time to be young? How have technology, travel and science improved young people’s lives for the better, and how much have they benefited from the struggles – sexual liberation, equality and post-war investment in health and education – of the baby boomer generation? Or is this, in fact, a far shallower world than the one the boomers inherited – one in which unemployment, constricted social mobility, austerity and environmental crisis are the end result of an overly selfish, financially irresponsible generation born after 1945?

As Rabbit Angstrom, the quintessential baby boomer in John Updike’s Rabbit series boasts: “I figure the oil’s going to run out about the same time I do, the year two thousand. Seems funny to say it, but I’m I lived when I did. These kids coming up, they’ll be living on table scraps. We had the meal.”

Proposing the motion will be the Guardian’s Shiv Malik, investigative reporter and author of Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. Joining him will be Laurie Penny, columnist, activist and New Statesman contributing editor, along with Simon Heffer, Daily Mail journalist, historian and author most recently of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. Arguing in opposition will be Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne in Surrey and author most recently of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World; Mansoor Hamayun, renewable technology entrepreneur and the chief executive of BBOXX, and Welsh novelist and columnist Allison Pearson.

Elsewhere at the festival, NS staff will be taking part in events with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, literary critic John Carey and novelists Jim Crace, A L Kennedy and Adam Foulds. Other highlights include appearances by Melvyn Bragg, Hanif Kureishi, Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, Pat Barker, Germaine Greer and Martin Rees.

Full programme information can be found on the Cambridge Literary Festival website. Tickets for the New Statesman debate, which will begin at 5.30pm on 5 April, can be purchased here.

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.