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Alcohol and cancer, a dangerous and poorly reported link


By Holadoctor

Alcohol is one of the leading risk factors for cancer, but there is generally little awareness of this connection. The pathology that people most often associate with excessive alcohol consumption is cirrhosis, not cancer.

The study “Do Beliefs about Alcohol and Cancer Risk Vary by Alcoholic Beverage Type and Heart Disease Risk Beliefs?”, by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, analyzed these beliefs to see if this lack of awareness of the alcohol-cancer link applied to all beverages or if it varied by the particular type of alcohol. It also analyzed this relationship for heart disease.

An analysis of specific data from the 2020 Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS 5, cycle 4), which specifically asked about respondents’ knowledge of the risks related to alcohol consumption, found that:

  • Awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer is highest for “spirits” such as liquor or whisky (31.2%).
  • It is followed by beer (24.9%) and wine (20.3%).
  • Most adults believed that wine prevented cancer, not that it caused it.
  • And those who knew that alcoholic beverages raised the risk of heart disease were more likely to be aware of the cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption.

A Gallup analysis found that 60% of adults in the United States drink alcoholic beverages, the most popular being beer. The survey also found that men drink more than women (63% and 57% respectively); the age group that drinks the most is between 35 and 54 years old; people with a higher level of education drink more (72% of college graduates versus 54% of non-college-graduates). In addition, higher earners consume more alcohol (81%) than those who earn less. 

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the average annual alcohol consumption is more than six liters per capita, and consumption is higher in the more developed countries in the region. 

A total of three million deaths worldwide (5.3% of all deaths) occur for reasons related to alcohol, which is a factor involved in more than 200 diseases and conditions. Approximately 4% of cancers worldwide are caused by alcohol consumption, equating to more than 740,000 cases of cancer in 2020. 

The dangerous habit of drinking in moderation

A 2020 study notes that the global alcohol-attributable burden of disease was primarily due to premature mortality. The adverse effects of alcohol consumption are visible relatively early in life, mainly due to injuries, but its harmful impact is felt at every stage of life.

This risk results not just from excessive consumption and alcoholism, but from the habit of drinking in moderation.When one drinks alcohol, the human body breaks it down into acetaldehyde, which damages DNA and prevents the body from repairing the damage. DNA regulates “normal” cellular functions; if it is damaged, a large window of risk is opened for bad cells to grow out of control.

Epidemiological research on alcohol and cancer is expanding, and its findings support recent biological evidence showing that ethanol also causes irreversible DNA damage, which can lead to cancer.

The most frequent types of cancer linked to alcohol are:

  • Mouth and throat
  • Larynx
  • Esophagus
  • Colon and rectum
  • Liver
  • Breast (in women)

In 1988, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified alcoholic beverages as group 1 carcinogens, the highest-risk classification. However, common knowledge has failed to catch up with decades of epidemiological data.

The National Cancer Institute study emphasized the need to educate the public about the link between alcohol and cancer, including raising awareness that drinking all types of alcoholic beverages increases cancer risk.