Alcohol and Cancer

Alcohol and Cancer

Alcohol’s cancer risks outweigh any health benefits, study shows

Maria GallucciJuly 22, 2016

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Drinking alcohol is a direct cause of at least seven forms of cancer, and the more you drink, the higher your risk, a new analysis found.

The report’s author said she hoped to cut through the barrage of studies and stories that can leave readers with conflicting views of alcohol’s effects.

After all, isn’t a nightly glass of wine supposed to be good for you?

SEE ALSO: Couples who get drunk together, stay together, according to a new study

“There is no argument, on current evidence, for a safe level of drinking with respect to cancer,” Jennie Connor, the author and a professor of epidemiology at Otago University in New Zealand, wrote in the analysis, published Thursday in the scientific journal Addiction.

She added that studies touting the perceived health benefits of casual drinking are “seen increasingly as disingenuous or irrelevant,” given the rising risks of a range of cancers.

Connor’s report found there is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer of the liver, colon, rectum, esophagus, larynx, pharynx and female breast.

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Her conclusions are based on comprehensive research and analyses carried out in the last decade by groups such as the World Cancer Research Fund, a U.K.-based nonprofit, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization in France.

Scientists at the agency similarly highlighted the link between alcohol and the same seven cancers in a 2013 paper published in the journal Future Oncology.

“Alcohol consumption is one of the most important known risk factors for human cancer and potentially one of the most avoidable factors, but it is increasing worldwide,” the authors of that study wrote.

Around 5.8 percent of total cancer-related deaths, or nearly half a million deaths, were directly caused by alcohol in 2012, a group of U.S., Canadian and Italian scientistsestimated last year.

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U.S. alcohol producers pushed back against Connor’s analysis.

“To declare that alcohol definitively causes cancer based upon cherry-picked epidemiology articles lacks scientific credibility,” Sam Zakhari, senior vice president of scientific affairs for Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade group, said in an emailed statement.

“Cancer is a complex disease that is not yet entirely understood and requires more research,” he said.

Connor’s report noted the risks of getting cancer from drinking is highest among heavy drinkers, a group roughly defined as men who drink more than four alcoholic beverages a day, and women who drink more than three.

But even light consumption — typically one daily drink for women, and two for men — can “minimally” raise the overall cancer risk, Harvard University researchers found in a2015 paper.

In the U.S., one drink is equal to a 12 ounce can of beer, a 5 ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, according to the American Cancer Society.

Those risks multiply for people who both drink and regularly smoke, particularly when it comes to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus, Connor said.

Image: Getty Images

That doesn’t mean people who drink are necessarily doomed to get those cancers. And there’s some evidence that people who ditch alcohol can reduce their risks of liver, laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers, according to the Addiction report.

Still, Connor noted that, while heavy drinkers face higher cancer risks, low to moderate drinkers still experience a “considerable burden” of health hazards from alcohol. Yet many people don’t know about the risks, a problem Connor partly attributed to the news of alcohol’s potential benefits.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jana Witt, a health information officer at Cancer Research U.K., applauded the study and offered a few simple tips for lowering alcohol consumption.

“Having some alcohol-free days each week is a good way to cut down on the amount you’re drinking,” Witt said. “Also, try swapping every other alcohol drink for a soft drink, choosing smaller servings or less alcoholic versions of drinks, and not keeping a stock of booze at home.”

This article was updated to include comment from Distilled Spirits Council.

Alcohol and Cancer

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