Alcohol Consumption Linked to New Cancer Cases

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According to a study in The Lancet Oncology, alcohol consumption caused 4% of new cancer cases in 2020.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), regular alcohol consumption is associated with more than 200 diseases and injuries. Moreover, it contributes to 5.1% of the global burden of disease. In the past, researchers have also linked drinking alcohol to cancers of the digestive tract, colon, rectum, and breast in females. However, with changes in consumption and cancer incidence, up-to-date global estimates are required. Therefore, a team of international researchers have conducted a population-based study to estimate alcohol-associated cancer cases and the disease burden.

Alcohol can lead to cancers in a variety of ways. The ethanol inside it breaks down to the carcinogen, acetaldehyde. This can then damage DNA and prevent the body from repairing the damage. Thus, further promoting cancer development. Moreover, alcohol acts as a solvent for tobacco and worsens its carcinogenic effects.

The researchers analyzed data from 2010 on alcohol sales, consumption, and production in every country in the world. They then included global cancer statistics from 2020. This allowed a ten-year latency period between alcohol consumption and cancer diagnosis.

Although the study reported a decrease in alcohol consumption in Europe, they noted a rise in use in Asian countries. According to the global study, 741,300 newly diagnosed cancer cases in 2020 were associated with alcohol consumption. This is approximately 4.1% of global cancer cases. Moreover, a large majority of these cases (77%) occurred in men. Esophageal, liver, and breast cancer (in females) accounted for the largest number of cases.

Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labelling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer.

Ms Harriet Rumgay, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), France

Pandemic Increases Intake

The study showed that risky drinking (2-6 alcoholic drinks per day) and heavy drinking (more than 6 alcoholic drinks per day) led to the greatest number of cases. However, moderate drinking (up to 2alcoholic drinks per day) still had an effect; causing more than 100,000 cancer cases. On a population level, Eastern Asia and central and eastern Europe accounted for the largest proportion of cases. Whereas, Northern Africa and Western Asia had the lowest cases.

Our study highlights the contribution of even relatively low levels of drinking to rates of cancer, which is concerning, but also suggests that small changes to public drinking behaviour could positively impact future cancer rates.

Ms Harriet Rumgay, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), France

However, it is important to note that the study did not account for tobacco use or any other risk factor such as obesity. Nor did they account for the increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Despite the limitations, the study highlights the need for better government measures aimed at reducing alcohol consumption. Especially, in regions with the highest number of cases.


Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study, The Lancet Oncology (2021). DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(21)00279-5 , … (21)00279-5/fulltext


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