Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol — i.e. less than two alcoholic beverages a day — puts a person at higher risk of two of the most fatal illnesses: breast and bowel cancer.
Alcohol is also linked to cancer of the mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, larynx and liver, according to the new study from the University of Otago.
In 2012, alcohol was responsible for 236 cancer deaths in New Zealanders aged 15–79 years
Professor Jennie Connor, the lead author of this study, said:
“About 60 per cent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in New Zealand women are from breast cancer.
We estimated 71 breast cancer deaths in 2007 and 65 in 2012 were due to drinking, and about a third of these were associated with drinking less than two drinks a day on average.
Although risk of cancer is much higher in heavy drinkers there are fewer of them, and many alcohol-related breast cancers occur in women who are drinking at levels that are currently considered acceptable.”
The work builds on earlier research in 2007 which found that 30% of all alcohol-attributable deaths in New Zealand were caused by cancer
This is more than all other chronic diseases put together.
In this research, the evidence that alcohol causes some types of cancer has been gathered from dozens of international studies, which were carried out over a number of decades.
Professor Connor added:
“There was little difference between men and women in the number of cancer deaths due to alcohol, even though men drink much more heavily than women, because breast cancer deaths balanced higher numbers of deaths in men from other cancer types.”
Professor Connor explained:
“These premature deaths from cancer resulted in an average 10.4 years of life lost per person affected, with more loss of life among Māori than non-Māori, and for breast cancer compared with other cancers.”
While these alcohol-attributable cancer deaths are only 4.2 per cent of all cancer deaths under 80, what makes them so significant is that we know how to avoid them.
Individual decisions to reduce alcohol consumption will reduce risk in those people, but reduction in alcohol consumption across the population will bring down the incidence of these cancers much more substantially, and provide many other health benefits as well.
Our findings strongly support the use of population-level strategies to reduce consumption because, apart from the heaviest drinkers, people likely to develop cancer from their exposure to alcohol cannot be identified, and there is no level of drinking under which an increased risk of cancer can be avoided.
We hope that better understanding of the relationship of alcohol with cancer will help drinkers accept that the current unrestrained patterns of drinking need to change.”
This study was published in Drug and Alcohol Review (Connor et al., 2016).
Alcohol image from Shutterstock