Cancers caused by smoking often take up to 30 years to develop, so tobacco is less likely to be the main reason behind the increase in oral cancer in people in their 40s compared with older people.
And since smoking rates have gone down and alcohol consumption has gone up, experts believe the increase in oral cancer rates could mainly be down to drinking.
Other risk factors that could have helped to fuel the rise in this age group include a diet low in fruit and vegetables, and a sexually transmitted infection called the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Oral cancer rates in the UK for men in their 40s have gone up by 28 per cent since the mid 1990s, and rates for women in their 40s have increased by 24 per cent in the same period.
For both men and women of all ages, oral cancer rates have increased by more than 45 per cent since records began in 1975.
Hazel Nunn, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “These latest figures are really alarming.
“Around three quarters of oral cancers are thought to be caused by smoking and drinking alcohol.
“Tobacco is, by far, the main risk factor for oral cancer, so it’s important that we keep encouraging people to give up and think about new ways to stop people taking it up in the first place.
“But for people in their 40s, it seems that other factors are also contributing to this jump in oral cancer rates.
“Alcohol consumption has doubled since the 1950s and the trend we are now seeing is likely to be linked to Britain’s continually rising drinking levels.
“It’s possible that HPV and diet are also playing a role, and the evidence – particularly for the role of HPV – is growing.”
Each year in the UK around 5,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer and around 1,800 people die from the disease. Oral cancers include those of the lip, tongue, mouth, parts of the pharynx and piriform sinus. Around a third of oral cancers are diagnosed in the mouth and a slightly lower proportion on the tongue.
The most common signs of oral cancer are ulcers, sores, red or white patches in the mouth that last longer than three weeks and unexplained pain in the mouth or ear. Less common signs include a lump in the neck, a persistent sore throat or difficulty swallowing.
Hazel Nunn added: “The good news is that oral cancer can be treated successfully if it’s caught early enough. It’s important that people go to the dentist regularly and report any symptoms to their GP or dentist without delay.”
For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.
Notes to editors:
The incidence rate changes are for Great Britain. The most recent incidence and mortality statistics are from 2006 and 2007, respectively.