Evidence grows that alcohol can cause cancer

July 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

Alcohol causes cancer in at least seven organs, according to a review of existing research published online in the journal Addiction.

Jennie Connor of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand said she set out to clarify the sometimes ambiguous and conflicting reports about the connection between alcohol use and cancers. Her research concluded “there is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others.”

The seven areas in her review:

  1. Oropharynx, or the back third of tongue, soft palate and side and back walls of the throat
  2. Larynx
  3. Esophagus
  4. Liver
  5. Colon
  6. Rectum
  7. Breasts

Cancer in those areas attributable to alcohol caused about half a million deaths worldwide in 2012, or 5.8 percent of all cancer deaths, Connor’s analysis estimated. For her work, Conner drew partly on material from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health previously published an analysis that concluded that more than four drinks per day can lead to a “substantial risk of cancer development at several sites. Lower levels of consumption result in a moderately increased risk for various cancers.”

Another earlier study found that exercise is associated with a lower risk of breast, kidney, liver, colon and other cancers.

Growing consensus

Health experts around the world have sounded increasingly firm warnings about the connection between alcohol and cancer. But they say that connection isn’t well understood by the public.

“We know that nine in 10 people aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and cancer,” Jana Witt, health information officer for the nonprofit Cancer Research UK, told The Guardian.

“And this review is a stark reminder that there’s strong evidence linking the two.”

Connor cautioned that the true effects of alcohol may be somewhat weaker or stronger than current estimates, but are “unlikely to be qualitatively different.”

Further reading

Connor’s study can be found on the website for the journal Addiction.

People who drink alcohol should discuss their habits with their health care providers. Providence has a range of resources that can be helpful, including substance abuse treatment programs. You can find a Providence provider here.

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