SCIENCE

Alcohol consumption led to 100,000 cancer cases in moderate drinkers last year

A study published in ‘The Lancet Oncology ‘notes there is no safe consumption limit and that 15% of the 740,000 tumors recorded worldwide in 2020 were among people who did not drink heavily

A group of young men celebrate the reopening of nightlife venues in the Netherlands two weeks ago.
A group of young men celebrate the reopening of nightlife venues in the Netherlands two weeks ago.PAUL BERGEN / EFE

Alcoholic beverages can cause cancer. This has been scientifically proven but is not common knowledge among the wider population and governments are failing to act with the necessary firmness. A new study has updated this direct relation after analyzing data from the past decade. Globally, alcohol was responsible for some 740,000 new tumors in 2020 alone. Over 4% of reported cancer cases worldwide last year can be attributed to the consumption of alcohol and, therefore, were entirely preventable.

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The study, published in the medical journal The Lancet Oncology, highlights important differences based on gender and region: three of every four cancers caused by alcohol affect males and the most-affected areas of the planet are eastern Asia and central and eastern Europe. For example, in Mongolia alcohol accounts for 10% of all tumors, in Romania 7% while in China and Russia the figure is around 6%. In Spain, 4.4% of all cancers diagnosed in 2020 had alcohol as the underlying cause, accounting for around 11,600 of the total number of cases.

The authors of the study have called for more resources to be dedicated to the problem by the relevant authorities. “We urgently need to raise awareness of the link between the consumption of alcohol and cancer risk among political leaders and the public in general. The local context is essential for a successful policy over alcohol consumption and will be key to reduce the number of cancer cases related to drink,” said Harriet Rumgay of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and lead author of the study.

Rumgay notes that the people most at risk of cancer are not those that drink the most: “Our study highlights the contribution of even relatively small amounts of alcohol in the number of cancer cases, which is concerning, but it also suggests that small changes in public behavior with regards to drink can have a positive impact on future cancer rates.” According to the research, almost 15% of alcohol-related cancers worldwide affect moderate drinkers, that is to say people who drink fewer than two beers per day. In total, that was the case with over 100,000 cancer diagnoses in 2020.

Between 4% and 5% of cancers globally are caused by alcohol, it’s as simple as that. They are avoidable
Spanish Society of Medical Oncology president Álvaro Rodríguez-Lescure

Placed in a global context, it is a figure that requires measures to be taken. Alcohol sales figures would seem to show that everybody 15 years old or over drinks at least one alcoholic beverage per day. But given that half of adults do not drink at all, this suggests that those who do are consuming at least two alcoholic drinks per day, explains Yale University researcher Amy C. Justice in an article accompanying the report in The Lancet Oncology. Drinking this amount is sufficient to be at risk of cancer due to alcohol consumption, without taking into account the many other problems associated with drinking such as cardiovascular and liver disease, mental health issues and alcoholism.

In the view of Álvaro Rodríguez-Lescure, president of the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM), the main conclusion of the study is that “there is no safe consumption of alcohol.” “There is no threshold of consumption at which the risk begins or disappears. Evidently, there is a relation between dose and effect: the greater the consumption, the higher the risk. But the risk is still present when the consumption is low,” says Rodríguez-Lescure, who did not participate in the study.

The oncologist laments the fact that people are not sufficiently aware of the direct association between alcohol and breast, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon and rectal cancers. The study analyzes the incidence rate of these types of cancer across different regions and countries, together with the alcohol consumption rate in those areas since 2010, the amount of time necessary for a tumor to develop due to these factors (and because of the timeframe, the coronavirus pandemic has not had any effect on the conclusions). “Between 4% and 5% of cancers globally are caused by alcohol, it’s as simple as that,” says the SEOM president. “They are avoidable.”

The study contributors are insistent: governments should take measures such as setting up public health strategies, reducing the availability of alcohol, taxation policies, warnings and even bans on marketing. “There is little awareness of the link between alcohol and the risk of cancer among the public in general but placing warnings about cancer on labels on alcohol products, similar to those used on tobacco, could dissuade people from purchasing alcohol products and increase awareness of the causal link with cancer,” the study notes. Furthermore, the alcohol industry has gone to great lengths to mislead consumers about this risk.

The only good news to emerge from the research is that the overall proportion of cancers caused by alcohol is declining, based on the results of previous similar studies: it is estimated that alcohol was responsible for 5.5% of all cancer cases in 2012, dropping to 4.8% in 2016 and showing a slight increase to 4.9% in 2019. Overall, there was a 5.5% decrease in the global rate of deaths from alcohol-related cancer between 2000 and 2016.

Rumgay, however, warned against triumphalism in The Lancet Oncology: “The trends show that while there is a reduction in alcohol consumption per person in many European countries, alcohol consumption is on the rise in countries like India and China and in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, there is evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased rates of alcohol consumption in some countries.”

English version by Rob Train.

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