Even Moderate Drinking Increases the Risk for Cancer
April 8, 2011 — "A considerable proportion of the most common and most lethal cancers is attributable to former and current alcohol consumption," concludes a large European study published online April 8 in BMJ.
The researchers attribute about 10% of all cancers in men and about 3% of all cancers in women to previous and current alcohol consumption.
The estimates come from an analysis of data from the huge ongoing European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer (EPIC) and from representative data on alcohol consumption compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The risk increases even with drinking moderate amounts.
"This research supports existing evidence that alcohol causes cancer and that the risk increases even with drinking moderate amounts," coauthor Naomi Allen, DPhil, an epidemiologist at Oxford University, United Kingdom, said in a statement.
The original data in the EPIC study were collected from 1992 to 2000, so "the results from this study reflect the impact of people's drinking habits about 10 years ago," Dr. Allen noted.
"People are drinking even more now than they were then, and this could lead to more people developing cancer because of alcohol in the future," she added.
Data From 8 Countries
The EPIC study, which is still ongoing, is one of the largest studies of diet and cancer ever conducted. It involved more than half a million people in Europe.
For this analysis of alcohol and cancer, the researchers used EPIC data from 363,988 participants from 8 European countries — France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Greece, Germany, and Denmark. Two of these centers (France and the Netherlands) recruited only women, so the total cohort was about two thirds female (254,870 women; 109,118 men).
Data on the incidence of cancer was obtained through record linkage with national cancer centers and from sources such as death certificates, health insurance records, and pathology reports.
Information on alcohol consumption was collected using a detailed questionnaire about the frequency and amount of drinking and the type of beverages consumed during the previous year. The researchers also computed data on alcohol exposure in the general population using data from a WHO survey.
Cancer Attributable to Alcohol
The researchers assumed a causal association between alcohol and cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract (which includes the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus), liver cancer, female breast cancer, and colorectal cancer (as decreed by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer).
The team then calculated the proportion of these specific cancers that could be attributable to previous and current alcohol consumption. They estimated that, in 2008, alcohol was responsible for 44% of the upper aerodigestive tract cancers in men and 25% in women, 33% of liver cancer in men and 18% in women, 17% of colorectal cancer in men and 4% in women, and 5% of breast cancer in women.
A substantial portion of these cancers attributable to alcohol consumption was linked to drinking more than the currently recommended upper limit, the researchers note.
The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend a maximum of 2 drinks per day (about 28 g of alcohol) for men and 1 drink (about 12 g) for women.
The team calculated that drinking more than this was responsible for 57% to 87% of the cancers attributable to alcohol (i.e., upper aerodigestive tract, liver, colorectal, and female breast cancer) in men and from 40% to 98% in women.
"Our data show that many cancer cases could have been avoided if alcohol consumption is limited to 2 alcoholic drinks per day in men and 1 alcoholic drink per day in women, which are the recommendations of many health organizations," said lead author Madlen Schütze, PhD student and epidemiologist at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke, Nuthetal, Germany.
"Even more cancer cases could be prevented if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol altogether," she said in a statement.
Although a substantial portion of the cancers were attributable to high alcohol intake, the remaining cancers were attributable to drinking alcohol at or under the currently recommended levels.
Risk Increases With Every Drink
"The cancer risk increases with every drink, so even moderate amounts of alcohol — such as a small drink each day — increases the risk of these cancers," according to a press release from Cancer Research UK, which cosponsors the ongoing EPIC study, along with several European agencies.
"Many people just don't know that drinking alcohol can increase their cancer risk," said Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK.
"Cutting back on alcohol is one of the most important ways of lowering your cancer risk," along with not smoking and maintaining a healthy bodyweight, she said.
The researchers touch on this point in their discussion. They refer back to studies that have shown a beneficial effect of alcohol on death from cardiovascular disease, especially coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke, which have in the past led to recommendations to enjoy a drink to benefit the heart.
But they point out that "even though light to moderate alcohol consumption might decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease, and mortality, the net effect is harmful."
"Thus, alcohol consumption should not be recommended to prevent cardiovascular disease or all-cause mortality," they write.
No Sensible Limit
The researchers also emphasize that this latest study, in addition to several others, shows that "there is no sensible limit below which the risk of cancer is decreased."