The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classed alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen (the highest IARC classification) for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, bowel, liver, stomach and breast (in women). There is accumulating evidence that drinking alcohol may also be associated with cancers of the lung, pancreas, prostate, melanoma and basal cell carcinoma.
Cancer risk is increased because of the ethanol in alcohol, irrespective of the type of alcoholic beverage. Ethanol, the chemical in alcoholic beverages that induces the physical and mental responses experienced with alcohol use, is also a Group 1 carcinogen. Alcohol has been attributed to 2.8% of all cancers diagnosed in 2010, with mouth and pharynx cancers having the highest number of cases attributable to cancer.
There is convincing evidence that alcohol is a cause of seven cancers types and probable evidence linking alcohol to three others (see Table 2). Recent research has also found people high-risk drinking have a significantly higher risk of cancers of the stomach, pancreas, and prostate. The overall evidence to date suggests that alcohol is not a risk factor for kidney cancer, Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. For lung cancer, the studies generally cannot adequately control for the effects of smoking. For other cancers, evidence of an association between alcohol use and cancer risk is generally limited or inconsistent.
Although alcohol use probably decreases the risk of kidney cancer, there is no evidence for recommending alcohol use protects against cancer. Even low levels of alcohol use can increase cancer risk. Alcohol use and cancer have a dose-response relationship meaning the more alcohol used over time, the greater the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers. The relationship is not a straight line, but shows upward curvature at higher drinking levels over time; the relationship appears to be consistent for women and men.
Table 2. Evidence of a link between alcohol and cancer type
|Type of cancer||Level of evidence|
|Any amount of alcohol increases risk|
|Skin||Limited - suggestive|
|Lung||Limited - suggestive|
|Pancreas||Limited - suggestive|
|Two or more alcoholic drinks a day (30 grams) increases|
|Three or more alcoholic drinks a day (45 grams) increases|
|Three or more alcoholic drinks a day (45 grams) decreases|
Smoking and alcohol: synergies for high risk
Smoking and alcohol together have a synergistic effect on upper gastrointestinal and aero-digestive cancer risk, meaning the combined effects greatly exceed the risk from either one alone. It has been estimated that over 75% of cancers of the upper aero-digestive tract in developed countries can be attributed to this effect. For example, compared to non-smoking non-drinkers, the approximate relative risks for developing mouth and throat cancer are up to seven times greater for those who use tobacco, up to six times greater for those who use alcohol, and 35 times greater for those who are regular heavy users of both tobacco and alcohol.
Alcohol has an independent effect on the risk of oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal and oesophageal cancers, but it is its synergistic effect with smoking that is most significant.
See the Tobacco control chapter of the National Cancer Prevention Policy for more information.
Alcohol and hepatitis B infection
Alcohol and hepatitis B virus infection may exert a joint effect on cancer of the liver. This is of particular concern in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations where hepatitis B is endemic, with data suggesting that liver cancer incidence and mortality rates are 3.5 to 3.6 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males than for other Australian males. It highlights an important area for further investigation and action.
Alcohol and weight gain
As well as being a direct cause of several cancers, alcohol use may indirectly increase cancer risk by contributing to obesity and overweight, which are linked by convincing evidence to cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, liver, bowel, breast (in post-menopausal women), endometrium and kidney. There is also probable evidence that body fatness is a cause of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, stomach, ovary, prostate and gallbladder cancer. (Convincing and probable are the highest levels of evidence as determined by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research and denote that the relationship is causal or probably causal in nature.)
The relationship between alcohol use and body weight and fat is complex and appears to vary with sex and drinking pattern. From a nutritional viewpoint, alcoholic drinks represent ‘empty kilojoules’ - meaning they are high in kilojoules but low in nutritional value, especially when added to sugary mixer drinks. Alcohol itself has a comparatively high energy content (29 kilojoules per gram) compared with other macronutrients.
If people drink alcohol in addition to their normal dietary intake – that is, without a compensatory reduction in energy intake – they are at risk of gaining weight. Alcohol provides extra kilojoules, and slows fat and carbohydrate oxidation. On the other hand, if drinking replaces healthy eating patterns, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and serious illness.
Perceived health benefits of alcohol: the evidence
Evidence shows there is no threshold (or safe limit) of alcohol use and cancer risk and that the more alcohol is used over a lifetime, the greater the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers. There is only evidence that low use of alcohol is protective for kidney cancer but not any other form of cancer.
The potential benefit of light to moderate alcohol use on cardiovascular disease is the subject of ongoing scientific debate. A 2011 systematic review suggested that light to moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, however more recent evidence suggests alcohol use does not have a significant protective effect on all-cause mortality or cardiovascular disease. Although some alcohol use appears to benefit cardiovascular health, when assessed with other health risks including cancer, injuries and communicable diseases, alcohol consumption leads to health loss across populations. Neither the World Health Organization nor the National Heart Foundation of Australia recommend drinking red wine or any other alcoholic beverage to prevent cardiovascular disease.
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