Reviewed: The Food Programme on Radio 4

Turn on, tuna in.

The Food Programme
Radio 4

An episode of The Food Programme (21 April, 3.30pm) considered the eating habits of lorry drivers. “Truckers are fussy,” claimed an interviewee at dawn on a stretch of the A3 referred to as “suicide alley” because of the lack of good places to stop and eat. “They want vegetarian, they want low-calorie, they want carrots.”

At a one-time kebab stand, now selling tomatoes from its own poly tunnel, someone ordered a tuna roll with “lots of cucumber” while another kept fruit in a pristine fridge in his cabin, destroying the cliché that truckers go around in dented white bread lorries feasting on Yorkies.

But while the show tried to be about what drivers eat, it kept pausing and ruminating on the lack of safe truck stops specifically in the UK and the dangers of a night spent pulled up in a lay-by – new draconian timesheets force drivers to sleep wherever they can park.

One man spoke about waking to find a hole cut in the side of his lorry and thieves quietly removing 50 cases of milkshakes. Newer vehicles now have microwaves, fridges and hobs, which mean drivers are expected to cook for themselves and rarely leave their cabs. The word “lonely” was uttered just once, but it was all the while heavily implied.

Surely a series about what lorry drivers listen to on the radio is a must? And particularly about the infamous CB channel 19 – the truckers’ channel. Recently Ofcom announced that AM on CB radio will be made legal by the end of this year, allowing foreign drivers to join the conversations: radio gold. CB is a life-saver, especially if, like me, you are eager to talk and like your personal information shouted.

Ah, I can just hear it now. “Alors, you ordered quoi?” “Tuna with lots of cucumber.” “Quoi?” “Tuna. With cucumber. On the A3. Delicious.”

Tuna. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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.