Alcohol and cancer

Child prays that father stopped drinking alcohol.

The #1 health-related fear for most people is cancer. The #1 health-related fear for NZ women is breast cancer. Few people realise alcohol directly causes cancer and is one of the most potent cancer causers we have in modern society. Alcohol has been classified by WHO as a class 1 Carcinogen, meaning it is a cancer causer in the same company as asbestos, mustard gas, formaldehyde and plutonium-239. The biggest damage caused by alcohol is cancer; breast cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer and many others. The challenge we have is that nobody talks about alcohol and cancer the way we do about cigarettes and cancer because alcohol is so deeply soaked into society. Talking about alcohol as a problem makes many of us very uncomfortable.

“The more you drink, the higher your risk of cancer. The less you drink, the less at risk you are of developing cancer. It is as simple as that”

Naomi Allen, Cancer Epidemiologist, Oxford University, UK

Alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen

According to the international, highly respected, European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) study:

  • Over 13% of the incidence of total global cancer was attributable to former and current alcohol consumption1
  • One drink daily raises your oesophageal cancer risk by 30%, your mouth cancer and pharynx cancer risk by 17%, and your breast cancer risk by 5%2
  • On daily drink causes 34,000 preventable deaths a year worldwide2
  • Moderate drinkers were 60% more likely to develop mental health problems than non-drinkers3
  • Two drinks per day raises your colon cancer risk by 60% over non-drinkers4
  • Two glasses of alcohol a day triples your mouth cancer risk5
  • Men consuming three drinks a day raise their risk for gastric cancer risk more than 700%6
  • Men consuming three drinks a day raise their risk of pancreatic cancer by 60%7
  • Postmenopausal women drinking alcohol twice daily double their risk of developing endometrial cancer8

Alcohol = cancer, even at the lowest levels

A huge multicountry study announced its findings late 2013 in regards to the lifestyle cause of cancer worldwide. These latest cancer incidence rates were assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer on behalf of WHO. They confirmed that alcoholic intake was linked to cancer even at the lowest intake. ‘Consumption of alcoholic beverages is associated to cancer of the female breast, even at low levels of alcohol consumption. Experimental and epidemiologic studies show that alcohol-induced breast cancer may be stronger for exposure during adolescence and early adulthood.’9

“If you have cancer in your family history and you want to reduce your cancer risk as far as possible, then do not drink. There is no evidence of a safe alcohol dose below which cancer-causing effects do not occur. Alcohol creates cancer through direct DNA damage, increased oestrogen levels, liver damage, excessive weight gain and feeding cancer cells via the high sugar levels. By reducing your alcohol intake or by choosing not to consume alcohol you can reduce your bowel cancer risks significantly”

Todd Harper, CEO, Cancer Council, Victoria, August 2014

Written by Jason Shon Bennett from ® & ©.



  1. Schütze, M., et al., ‘Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study.’ British Medical Journal, 7 April 2011, 342:d1584. PMID: 21474525.
  2. University of Milan, study on over 150,000 people in more than 200 research projects. Annals of Oncology, 2012.
  3. Study by researcher Dr Iain Lang, Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, UK, and a group of US researchers, on 5075 adults. Presented to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, 18 July 2012.
  4. The George Institute, University of Sydney, Australia, June 2009.
  5. Press Association in The Guardian, 5 February 2012.
  6. Duell, E.J., et al., ‘Polymorphisms in the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH1) gene cluster, alcohol consumption, and interactions in relation to gastric cancer risk in the EPIC cohort.’ American Association for Cancer Research, 2011, Abstract 3748.
  7. Jeanine M. Genkinger, Assistant Professor of Oncology, study meta-analysis of 14 studies. Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
  8. Veronica Wendy Setiawan, Kristine R. Monroe, Marc Goodman, Laurence Kolonel, Malcolm C. Pike and Brian E. Henderson, ‘Alcohol consumption and endometrial cancer risk: The multiethnic cohort.’ International Journal of Cancer, 2011.
  9. Study from ‘87 countries with high quality cancer incidence rate data as well as all 157 countries with cancer incidence rate data for various types of cancer as compared statistically with indices for various risk modifying factors.’ Nutrients, December 2013. Also, WHO International Agency for Research in Cancer, ‘Monograph on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans.’ Also, Bloomfield, K., et al., ‘Gender, Culture and Alcohol Problems: a Multi-national Study.’ Alcohol Supplemental, 2006, 41(1):i26-i36. Also, Schutze, M., Boeing, H., Pischon, T., et al., ‘Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study.’ British Medical Journal, 2011, 342:d1584.

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