A new study indicates that alcohol consumption is estimated to have caused over 740,000 cancer cases across the world last year.
Writing in The Lancet Oncology, the research team made their calculations using existing alcohol consumption estimates for 2010, based on tax and sales data, as well as other data such as risk estimates for cancers known to be linked to drinking.
The researchers combined these figures with existing estimates of new cancer cases expected for 2020, based on records from previous years and hence not affected by disruptions due to the pandemic. This allowed the researchers to estimate the number of cancer cases that were probably caused by drinking.
There is compelling evidence to suggest that alcohol consumption can cause various cancers including those of the breast, liver, colon, rectum, oropharynx, larynx and oesophagus.
Despite this evidence, public awareness remains low. A 2018 survey found that only one in 10 people were aware that alcohol could cause cancer.
Researchers say that this needs to change, recommending cancer warnings on alcohol labels, higher taxes on alcohol and reduced marketing activity may all help to reduce the rate of cancers caused by alcohol consumption.
Harriet Rumgay, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, was a co-author of the new study. She said that alcohol caused a considerable burden of cancer globally, even amongst lower-level drinkers.
While most alcohol-caused cancers were linked to heavy or “risky” consumption, even moderate and low levels of alcohol consumption were estimated to have caused some cases.
The data showed that drinking up to 10g of alcohol a day (equivalent to half a pint or a small glass of wine) contributed to between 35,400 and 145,800 cancer cases globally.
The findings show that in the UK, an estimated 4% of cancer cases in 2020 – around 16,800 cases – were linked to alcohol consumption.
“Alcohol’s impact on cancer is often unknown or overlooked, so we need increased public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer, and policies to decrease overall alcohol consumption to prevent the burden of cancers and other diseases attributable to alcohol,” said Rumgay.
Alarmingly, the figures published in the new report are likely to be underestimates. This is because they do not take into account former drinking habits, and only include cancers where there is strong evidence of alcohol being the cause.
Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive at Cancer Research UK, said the new research demonstrates that there is still lots of work to do to prevent alcohol-related cancers.
She said: “There’s strong evidence that drinking alcohol can cause seven types of cancer, and the more someone drinks the greater their risk. There’s no safe level of drinking, but whatever your drinking habits cutting down can reduce your risk of cancer.”
The UK’s guidelines recommend that both men and women drink no more than 14 units per week. 14 units equates to around six pints of lager, or one and a half bottles of wine.
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