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No one wants to believe that beer, wine, cider, and hard liquor could set the stage for the development of cancer. A growing chorus of experts, however, warns of a cancer connection for alcohol.

Craft beers, fine wines, champagne, and cocktails are considered by many to be natural accompaniments to good food and good company. The last thing anyone wants to hear is that alcoholic beverages can cause cancer. The connection between alcohol and cancer, however, was first reported in 1988, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that alcohol was a carcinogen.

Millions of cancer deaths are linked to alcohol consumption. The World Cancer Report, released in 2014, presented data that show that 3.5 percent of cancer deaths worldwide, about 3 million deaths over the last 10 years, can be attributed to consumption of alcohol. A report released in 2015 found that the rates of alcohol-related cancer deaths are accelerating, to about 5.8 percent of all cancer deaths, as more people all over the world drink alcohol and the amount of alcohol they drink is increasing, especially in women.

Dr. Jürgen Rehm,  Director of the Social and Epidemiological Research Department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, describes the situation this way: “Very simply, the cancers that have been determined previously to be caused by alcohol have been confirmed. There is no discussion about whether alcohol causes these cancers. The fact that alcohol is a carcinogen has been clearly confirmed."

What Kinds of Cancer Are Linked to Drinking Alcoholic Beverages?

The specific types of cancer to which Dr. Rehm refers are those in the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, liver, and breast. There are also studies that suggest that pancreatic cancer is causally linked to drinking, but the data are inconclusive. Melanoma and cancers of the prostate and lung are also associated with use of alcohol, but only at higher levels of consumption.

Are There Any Patterns of Drinking That Are Linked to Risk of Cancer?

In 2015, researchers published findings from two studies of American health professionals, the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which enlisted 88,084 women and 47,881 men, respectively. Together, the participants in these two studies reported a total of 26,840 cases of cancer. When the data are analyzed, there are no doubts that alcohol consumption is linked to risk of cancer. However, the way that alcohol contributes to cancer risk is cumulative. The more drinks of alcohol you consume over a period of years, the greater your risk of cancer. There is no added risk for “tying one on” on weekends or holidays, but there is no added protection for having just one drink a day. Women seem to be more sensitive to alcohol, with regard to cancer risk, than men.

Smoking, Drinking, and Cancer

The data also showed an unexpected relationship between smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and the risk of cancer.

  • Men who had never smoked did not have a higher risk of cancer if they drank, but
  • Women who ever drank had increased risk of cancer even if they did not smoke.
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