Scientists link moderate alcohol use to higher cancer risk

higher cancer risk, moderate alcohol
© Gary Hider

A World Health Organisation (WHO) study finds a link between moderate alcohol use and higher cancer risks – including in people who had up to two drinks a day

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently revealed that even moderate alcohol use may increase risk of cancer. In this study, moderate alcohol use is defined as up to two drinks a day – which is considered a socially acceptable level of drinking.

During the COVID lockdown in the UK, levels of social drinking significantly increased.

Drinkaware, an organisation tackling alcohol addiction, said: “One of the top three reasons young adults give for drinking more is that they are feeling anxious. Among UK adults who drink younger generations are also more likely than the national average to be drinking alone when they wouldn’t usually.

“We’re concerned that, for a significant number of people, lockdown levels of drinking may become ingrained and hard to break.”

The study found that of 7,000 new cases of cancer in 2020, including 24% of breast cancer cases, 20% of colon cancers, 15% of rectal cancers, and 13% of oral and liver cancers – have been linked to the intake of alcohol.

‘6% higher risk for female breast cancer’, says Dr Rehm

Study co-author Dr. Jürgen Rehm, Senior Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research and Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH, said: “All drinking involves risk.

“And with alcohol-related cancers, all levels of consumption are associated with some risk. For example, each standard sized glass of wine per day is associated with a 6 per cent higher risk for developing female breast cancer.”

The modelling study was based on data on alcohol exposure from almost all countries of the world, both surveys and sales figures, which were combined with the latest relative risk estimates for cancer based on level of consumption.

‘The impact on cancers is often unknown’, says Dr Soerjomataram

“Alcohol consumption causes a substantial burden of cancer globally,” said Dr Isabelle Soerjomataram, Deputy Branch Head, Cancer Surveillance Branch at IARC.

“Yet the impact on cancers is often unknown or overlooked, highlighting the need for implementation of effective policy and interventions to increase public awareness of the link between alcohol use and cancer risk, and decrease overall alcohol consumption to prevent the burden of alcohol-attributable cancers.”


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