Moderate Drinking Linked to Increased Cancer Risk

Researchers shed light on association between alcohol consumption and cancer.

Researchers shed light on association between alcohol consumption and cancer.

Drinking alcohol, even in light-to-moderate quantities, has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in both men and women, especially if they smoke as well.

A study published in The BMJ found an increased risk of total cancer in men and women who drink moderately was minimal; however, in women who drank moderately and did not smoke, there was a higher risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol consumption.

Risk of alcohol-related cancers was also higher among light and moderate drinking men, but only in those who have ever smoked. Men who had never smoked before were not found to have an increased risk of alcohol-related cancers.

While light-to-moderate drinking may not significantly increase the risk of contracting alcohol-related cancers, heavy drinking is positively associated with the development of many types of cancers, including breast, colorectal, liver, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.

The association between light-to-moderate drinking and overall cancer risk is less clear to scientists. The role of alcohol independent of smoking has also not been settled.

To test the association of light-to-moderate drinking with cancer, a team of scientists at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston set out to determine whether light to moderate drinking is associated with an increased risk of cancer.

The study involved data from two large US cities that tracked the health of 88,084 women and 47,881 men for up to 30 years. They assessed the risk of total cancer as well as alcohol-specific cancers, such as those aforementioned.

Light-to-moderate drinking was defined as one standard drink or 15g of alcohol per day for women and two standard drinks or 30g of alcohol per day for men. In addition to the data provided by the cities, age, ethnicity, body mass index, family history of cancer, history of cancer screening, smoking, physical activity, and diet were also considered.

The scientists followed up with their patients and a total of 19,269 cancers were diagnosed in women with a total of 7571 cancers diagnosed in men. The researchers assessed that light-to-moderate drinking overall was associated with a small but non-significant increased risk of total cancer in both men and women, regardless of whether or not they smoked.

While increased alcohol-related cancer risk was not detected in men who never smoked, it was detected in both women who smoked and those that did not smoke. This increase came even within the range of up to one drink a day.

“This large study sheds further light on the relationship between light-to-moderate drinking and cancer,” said Jurgen Rehm, PhD, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

While the findings indicate an increased risk of cancer in those that drink even moderately, much more research must be conducted in order to fully understand the relationship between alcoholic consumption and cancer risk.

“People with a family history of cancer should consider reducing their intake to below recommended limits or even abstaining altogether, given the now well established link between moderate drinking and alcohol-related cancers,” Dr. Rehm concluded.