Alcohol blamed for 1 in 30 U.S.Cancer Deaths

Issue 21, Summer/Fall 2013

Event ‘light’ drinking carries risk for malignancy, study finds

The first comprehensive look in 30 years at drinking's effect on cancer risk for Americans finds that 3.5 percent of cancer deaths -- about 1 in every 30 -- are caused by alcohol consumption.

The study also found that there is probably no safe level of drinking, since an estimated 30 percent of the nearly 20,000 cancer deaths attributed to alcohol each year occur among people who have only a drink or two per day.

"Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy," concludes a team of researchers led by Dr David Nelson of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, which funded the study.

Reporting in the American Journal of Public Health, the researchers note that alcohol has long been tied to a number of tumor types, including cancers of the colon/rectum, breast, mouth, throat, esophagus and liver. Worldwide, drinking is thought to account for about four percent of all cancers, but an assessment of alcohol's role in U.S. cancer rates has been long overdue, the authors said.

The new study drew on data from a number of prior meta-analyses (reviews of data from multiple studies) as well as evidence from three major U.S. government health databases.

The team found that drinking accounted for about 3.5 percent of U.S. cancer deaths annually, around 19,500 in total. Among men, most alcohol-attributed deaths came from cancers of the upper airway and esophagus, while breast cancer made up most alcohol-linked cancer deaths for women (about 6,000 deaths from breast cancer annually).

And while the risk for cancer from alcohol was highest among heavy drinkers, so-called 'light' drinking -- less than 1.5 drinks per day -- accounted for an estimated 30 percent of alcohol-related cancer deaths, the researchers say.

So, despite reports that a drink or so per day might have cardiovascular benefit, that gain may be wiped out by drinking's effect on cancer risk, Nelson and his team conclude.

"There is no safe level [of drinking] at which there is no cancer risk," they write, and "when viewed in the broad context, alcohol results in 10 times as many deaths as it prevents in the United States."

Study senior author Dr. Timothy Naimi, of Boston University School of Medicine, said it's time more attention was focused on alcohol's carcinogenic effects.

"The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians, "he said in a university news release. "Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight."