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Alcohol Causes Cancer

The most comprehensive review of research into the role of diet in cancer has concluded that even small amounts of alcohol increase the risk of a number of different cancers.

The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer have jointly published, “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective.” This document is the culmination of five years work by almost two hundred scientists, who adopted the most up-to-date methodology for synthesising the results of all known scientific research on the effects of diet and exercise on cancer. This is the second such report produced, but is more than simply an update of the previous report, published in 1997, since it takes advantage of recent developments in systematic approaches to synthesising scientific evidence.

Regarding the effects of alcohol on cancer, the report concludes that there is convincing evidence that alcoholic drinks are a cause of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, breast and colorectum (in men). They are probably also a cause of colorectal cancer in women, and of liver cancer. It is unlikely that they have any effect on the risk of kidney cancer.

Comparing the results with those found by the previous report, the authors found that in general, the evidence that alcohol is a cause of a number of cancers has become stronger since the mid-1990s. Whereas the previous report identified a threshold, such that drinking less than a certain amount had no detectable effect on cancer, the current evidence does not indicate a threshold effect. Even a small amount of alcohol has an effect on the risk of cancer, and the risk increases with the quantity of alcohol consumed. There is no difference between different types of alcoholic drinks.

Although the evidence regarding cancer would justify a recommendation of complete abstinence to minimise the risk, the panel also took account of the evidence on heart disease when making their recommendation on drinking levels. There is evidence that modest amounts of alcohol are likely to protect against heart disease. Taking into account alcohol’s effects on both cancer and heart disease, the recommendation is to limit consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. The ‘drink’ in this case is between 10 and 15 grams of alcohol, which is approximately half a pint of beer (5%) or a small glass (125 ml) of wine (12%).

Download the recommendations here. (pdf 56kb)

Download the chapter summarising the research on alcohol here. (pdf 278kb)