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Alcohol and Cancer Risk

The alcohol industry is downplaying the cancer risks of their products in the same way that the tobacco industry did 70 years ago. A study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Sweden's Karolinska Institutet analyzed the websites of almost 30 alcohol industry organizations between September and December 2016 and found that most showed incredible "distortion, denying, distraction and misrepresentation" of evidence associating alcohol with cancer, specifically the abundant recent data of alcohol's association with breast and colon cancers (Drug and Alcohol Review, September 7, 2017).

The alcohol industry claims that moderate drinking is safe, yet thirty percent of all alcohol–related deaths are caused by cancer, with 60 percent of these deaths from breast cancer. One third of these deaths were associated with an average of fewer than two drinks a day (Drug Alcohol Rev, June 16, 2016). More than 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States are linked to alcohol (Amer J of Pub Health, 2013;103(4):641-648).

How Alcohol Can Lead to Cancer
Alcohol can damage every cell in your body. Your liver is the only organ that can break down significant amounts of alcohol and it does this on a time-limited basis. The alcohol is first converted to acetaldehyde, which is even more damaging to your cells than alcohol. Acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping your cells from healing from this damage. The highest risk for alcohol-induced cancer is in your mouth and throat because some bacteria there are able to convert ethanol directly into acetaldehyde. Alcohol damages cells to produce Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that can alter DNA to cause cancer. Alcohol reaches the liver, colon and rectum later so the link between these cancers and alcohol is not as strong.

No Amount of Alcohol is "Safe"
A review of scientific articles showed that drinking even one glass of wine a day raises the risk of cancer of the throat, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast (Addiction, Jul 21, 2016). The more you drink, the greater your risk for developing these cancers. Alcohol has also been associated with cancers of the skin (Am J Clin Nutr, Nov 2015;102(5):1158-66), prostate and pancreas. Another review of 27 studies showed that taking up to two drinks a day is associated with a 23 percent increased risk for prostate cancer (BMC Cancer, Nov 5, 2016). A review of 222 scientific papers that followed 92,000 light drinkers and 60,000 non-drinkers showed that taking just one alcoholic drink a day is associated with increased risk for cancer of the mouth and throat, esophagus and breast (Annals of Oncology, Feb 2013; 24(2):301-308). Several studies show that mouth, throat and liver cancer patients who stop drinking have a reduced chance of recurrence of their cancers compared to those who continue to drink.

Smoking, being overweight, eating an unhealthful diet and not exercising markedly increase risk for alcohol-related cancers. The risk for cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus is much higher if you both drink and smoke than if you use either alcohol or tobacco alone, and the more you drink and smoke, the greater your risk (Int J Cancer, 2011;128:533-540).

My Recommendations
Many people have the mistaken belief that it is safe for women to take up to one drink per day and for men to take up to two drinks per day. Almost 30 percent of North Americans drink more than that. The studies listed above and many more show that no amount of alcohol is "safe" or beneficial. Whatever you decide about your own consumption of alcohol, do not base your decision on bad information from the alcoholic beverage industry.
See Alcohol Has No Health Benefits
Alcohol and Heart Attacks
Even Small Amounts of Alcohol Can Increase Risks for Cancer and Heart Attacks

Checked 9/9/18

September 17th, 2017
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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