New research finds alcohol linked to higher risk of several cancers

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Researchers found that in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall frequency of alcohol consumption among participants increased by 14%.

You don’t have to be a heavy drinker to be at increased risk for cancer, according to a new study.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that even light to moderate drinking was linked to a considerably higher risk of several types of cancer. They include breast, colon and oral cancers. Those who consumed up to two alcoholic drinks a day represented 1 in 7 cases of all new cancers in 2020.

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“All drinking involves risk,” said study co-author Dr. Jürgen Rehm, Senior Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research and Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH. “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% higher risk for developing female breast cancer.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol raises your cancer risk due to a chemical called acetaldehyde. This is what your body breaks down alcohol into, and it can damage DNA and inhibit your body from repairing the damage. Damaged DNA can lead a cell to grow out of control and cause cancer.

“Alcohol consumption causes a substantial burden of cancer globally,” Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram, Deputy Branch Head, Cancer Surveillance Branch at IARC, said in a press release. “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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Researchers used alcohol exposure data from nearly every country. Data included surveys and sales figures. They were combined with the most recent relative risk estimates for cancer based on consumption level.

A 2013 study found that alcohol led to an estimated 18,200 to 21,300 U.S. cancer deaths. That accounted for 3.2% to 3.7% of all cancer deaths.

Dr. Kevin Shield, Independent Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, was a co-author of the new study. He said that research on the link between light to moderate drinking and cancer is relatively new. He noted public policy doesn’t yet mirror the degree of cancer risk.

“As an epidemiologist, I would recommend higher taxes to fully reflect the burden of disease from alcohol,” he said in a press release. “Along with limiting the physical availability and marketing of alcohol, price controls are recognized as high-impact, cost-effective measures to reduce alcohol-related harm.”