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Alcohol a Preventable Cancer Risk ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’

Alcohol a Preventable Cancer Risk ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’

Alcohol a Preventable Cancer Risk ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’


If you knew something was a risk for cancer would you avoid it? Known carcinogens are usually highly publicized and people frequently adjust their behavior accordingly. One thinks of red dye #2 that was once added to bacon. Sun block sales suggest that many take the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure seriously. And the current intolerance for tobacco use is at least partly driven by the public’s knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Yet, how many are aware that alcohol is also a dangerous carcinogen?

Hiding in Plain Sight

Alcohol is a clear cancer risk, but it gets little public attention as such. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is responsible for 4 percent of the world’s cancers and is the third greatest risk for developing a host of other serious diseases as well. In the United States, a study published in mid-February in the American Journal of Public Health, states that alcohol is responsible for approximately 20,000 cancer deaths each year–equivalent to about 3.5 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths, according to a news release from the Boston University Medical Center. That translates to 20,000 cancer deaths connected to alcohol consumption.  Certainly, alcohol as a cancer risk deserves a bit more press.

In the first major analysis of alcohol and cancer in recent decades, the study looked at 220,000 U.S. adults and examined their alcohol use and mortality information.  The researchers found that seven cancers appeared to be particularly linked to alcohol use. Those cancers were: rectal, colon, liver, esophageal, breast (female), pharynx, larynx and oral cancer.

As many as 15 percent of women’s breast cancers were connected to drinking alcohol, a finding which is backed up by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  This is probably because alcohol affects estrogen levels. In men, cancers linked to alcohol use were oral, larynx, pharynx and esophageal. The data showed that men and women who consumed three or more drinks each day increased their cancer risk by 48 to 60 percent. One-third of cancer deaths were linked to just one to two drinks per day.

The leading risks for cancer are a person’s weight, diet, activity level, tobacco and alcohol consumption. While some have touted drinking certain kinds of alcohol as beneficial to heart health, the facts show that alcohol leads to 10 times more fatalities than it prevents. In fact, those who contract cancer related to alcohol use lose an average of 18 years from their lives.

“The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains under-emphasized even by physicians,” said Timothy Naimi, who served as the paper’s senior author. “Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”


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