Does alcohol cause cancer?

Some people won’t smoke cigarettes because they know tobacco use causes cancer. But they may not think twice about going out for drinks—oblivious to the cancer risk alcohol also poses.

Despite stories of centenarians crediting their longevity to daily shots of whiskey, or studies attributing health benefits to red wine, leading cancer organizations now say there’s no amount of alcohol that’s safe to drink without increasing cancer risk. Fewer drinks are better than more drinks, but any drinking increases the risk for alcohol-related cancers.

An American Cancer Society study using data from 2014 measured the incidence rates for these three leading cancer risk factors:

Cigarette smoking: 19 percent of cases and 29 percent of deaths

Excess body weight: 7.8 percent of cases and 6.5 percent of deaths

Drinking alcohol: 5.6 percent of cases and 4 percent of deaths

Alcohol even ranked ahead of UV radiation, which the study linked to 5 percent of cancer cases and 1.5 percent of cancer deaths.

One reason alcohol may not have the same stigma as smoking is that, while drinking may increase cancer risk, tobacco use has a much clearer correlation, says Pankaj Vashi, MD, Vice Chief of Staff at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Chicago.

“As for the scientific basis of smoking as a cause of cancer, the data is very, very strong compared to that for alcohol,” Dr. Vashi says. “There’s obviously a relationship between drinking and certain cancers, but you’re usually talking about people who drink a lot.”

A  2021 study by university of Virginia indicates that most Americans are unaware that drinking alcohol may increase cancer risk. Of those surveyed:

  • 20 percent were aware that wine increases cancer risk.
  • 25 percent knew that beer increased risk.
  • 31 percent knew that liquor increased cancer risk.

The study was conducted to determine support for warning labels, advertising bans and other steps to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking.

Alcohol consumption has been connected to a higher risk for these types of cancer:

  • Oral cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Breast cancer in women

Heavy drinking may also raise the risk for pancreatic cancer and stomach cancer.

The risk of cancer increases the more a person drinks and continues to drink over time. If you stop drinking, it still takes time for the increased risks to drop significantly.

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