Most people who consume alcohol are unaware that it increases their risk of receiving a diagnosis of cancer, according to an expert.
More than 700,000 new cancer cases worldwide in 2020 were attributed to alcohol usage, according to study results published in The Lancet.
The data, according to Dr. Kevin Shield, show that more effective policies are needed to spread awareness and increase education on the risks associated with alcohol consumption and cancer.
“From a consumer rights perspective, there's a need to increase that awareness because people have a right to know if they're engaging in a certain type of health risk when they're engaging in a behavior,” Shield, an author on the study and head of the World Health Organization Pan American Health Organization Collaborating Center, said in an interview with CURE®.
Previous studies have shown that alcohol consumption is casually associated with an increased risk of cancer. To expand on that knowledge, Shield and colleagues sought to discover the amount of cancer cases in 2020 that were caused by alcohol consumption.
The study results showed that males made up most of the new cancer cases attributed to alcohol last year (568,700) and the most common cancers associated with consumption were of the esophagus (189,700), liver (154,700) and breast (98,300).
Shield, who is also an independent scientist at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada, explained that alcohol increases a person’s risk of cancer because of its effects on the body. For instance, when alcohol comes into direct contact with the cells in the head and neck as well as the digestive system, Shield noted that it damages the DNA. Moreover, he said that the association of breast cancer and alcohol consumption comes from alcohol-induced hormonal dysregulations.
The data also demonstrated that heavy drinking was most associated with cancer at 346,400 cases, followed by risky drinking at 291,800 cases and moderate drinking at 103,100 cases. Shield noted that drink sizes differ globally, but generally, one to two drinks per day is a low dose, more than two to four per day is moderate and anything more than four per day is risky.
In terms of risk, Shield said, even low and moderate alcohol consumption carries a risk of cancer.
Regarding location, northern Africa and western Asia were least likely to have cancers attributed to drinking, and eastern Asia, as well as central and eastern Europe were most likely.
Of note, when Shield and colleagues included stomach and pancreatic cancers in their analysis, cancer cases attributed to alcohol rose to 808,700. That total increased to 925,900 cases when the study authors included data from former drinkers. Shield defined former drinking as anyone who has consumed alcohol but has since stopped. He mentioned that the researchers included former drinkers because they wanted to make sure they were accounting for all cancer cases that were related to drinking. But he noted that if a person stops drinking, their risk of cancer will go down.
Alcohol — just as with exposure to ultraviolet rays, obesity and pesticide exposure — is associated with an increased cancer risk, according to Shield. However, it’s not just a risk factor but rather “one of the top risk factors.”
People who reduce their alcohol intake could experience a “plethora of health benefits,” according to Shield, including a strengthened immune system, digestive system improvements, better heart health and a reduction in injuries as well.
Shield highlighted previous population surveys which found that more than half of the general population is unaware of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk. A clever way to show people those risks, according to Shield, is to put a health warning on the product. He noted that study results out of Canada showed that alcohol consumption was reduced in people who saw a packaging label that indicated health risks associated with alcohol.
“It actually improves the health of those individuals and the population in general,” he concluded.
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