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Alcohol Consumption Increases Cancer Risk: WHO Study

Alcohol Consumption Increases Cancer Risk: WHO Study

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  • About 4.1% of all new cancer cases in 2020 were associated with alcohol consumption
  • Males accounted for a higher percentage of alcohol-attributable cancer cases than women
  • Cancers of the esophagus, liver, and breast rank top in the list

Consumption of alcohol is associated with a substantially higher risk of cancer, revealed a new study by the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). As the patterns of alcohol consumption tend to change across the globe, this study updates the existing global estimates of cancer for the year 2020.


While the general public might see alcohol just as a recreational substance and opine that everything we use nowadays causes cancer, Dr. Jürgen Rehm, co-author of the study, has a different opinion. "Alcohol is a Class 1 carcinogen defined by IARC. All drinking involves Risk. And with alcohol-related cancers, all levels of consumption are associated with some risk. For example, each standard-sized glass of wine per day is associated with a 6 percent higher risk for developing female breast cancer," he said.

What Did the Study Find?

To evaluate the impact of alcohol consumption on cancer development, the study team used estimates of 2010 alcohol consumption from the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health and corresponding relative risk estimates from systematic literature reviews. They then applied details from these data to the cancer incidence data from GLOBOCAN 2020.

Data relating to alcohol production and consumption around 2010 were used as the cancers diagnosed in 2020 are more likely to be developed due to alcohol use that occurred a decade before.

The complete analysis of the above data showed that
  • Globally, an estimated 741,300 or 4.1% of all new cases of cancer in 2020 were associated with alcohol consumption
  • Consumption of as little as two drinks a day also posed an increased risk of cancer as they represent more than 100,000 cases worldwide
  • Males represented a higher percentage of alcohol-attributable cancer cases than women (76•7% vs. 23.3%)
  • Cancers of the esophagus, liver, and breast contributed the most cases around the world
  • The fraction of alcohol-attributable cancer cases was lowest in northern Africa and western Asia and highest in eastern Asia, central, and eastern Europe
  • Canada accounted for 7,000 new cases of alcohol-attributable cancers in 2020, of which 24% represented breast cancer cases, 20% represented colon cancers, 15% represented rectal cancers, and 13% represented oral and liver cancers.

How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

The mechanism by which alcohol increases cancer risk isn't completely understood. However, there are some ways by which it can influence the development of cancers.

Alcohol damages our body cells and causes them to repair themselves due to DNA damage in two important instances. The first instance is when our body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a molecule that can damage our DNA, and the other is when it helps other harmful chemicals, such as those present in tobacco smoke, enter the cells of the mouth, throat, liver, and digestive tract more quickly and cause inflammation and scarring of tissues. These changes can be a step toward cancer.

Alcohol can also induce the development of cancers by interrupting nutrient absorption in the body and causing changes in hormone levels. This could be the reason behind breast and colorectal cancers.

Apart from all these, alcohol could also raise the risk of cancer by making us obese as it adds some extra calories to the diet.

Recommendations of CAMH

Dr. Leslie Buckley, Chief of Addictions inthe Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital), said, "In our clinic, we are seeing many people who report increased alcohol use since the onset of the pandemic. Although this may be related to temporary stressors, there is a potential for new habits to become more permanent."

It is important to note that CAMH's Alcohol Policy Framework-2019 recommended boosting the awareness about the risks of alcohol consumption among the public. The suggestions provided include preparation and popularization of guidelines about lower-risk drinking and inclusion of information about health and safety risks associated with alcohol consumption.

In line with this, Dr. Rehm added, "As an epidemiologist, I would recommend higher taxes to fully reflect the burden of disease from alcohol. Along with limiting the physical availability and marketing of alcohol, price controls are recognized as high-impact, cost-effective measures to reduce alcohol-related harm."

Want to Stay Away From Alcohol? Here's What You Can Do!

  • Set your own goals and start cutting them down gradually
  • Maintain a personal diary to keep track of your drinking habits
  • Plan your monthly budget without alcohol expenses so that it can stay away from your home
  • Beware of peer pressure and start saying, "No thanks!"
  • Try different kinds of juices and non-alcoholic drinks before you have alcohol

References :
  1. Harriet Rumgay et al. Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study. Lancet Oncology, 2021 DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(21)00279-5
  2. Alcohol Use and Cancer - (https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html)
  3. Alcohol Policy Framework - (https://www.camh.ca/-/media/files/pdfs---public-policy-submissions/camh-alcoholpolicyframework-2019-pdf.pdf)

Source: Medindia

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