It’s not something that most people consider when thinking about the risks of consuming alcohol, but research has found a link between alcohol consumption and cancer. Even drinking small amounts of alcohol increases your risk of cancer.
That doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks alcohol will go on to develop cancer. But it does mean that people who drink alcohol are more likely to get cancer than people who don’t drink it.
The link between alcohol and cancer
A significant amount of research shows that drinking alcohol increases the risk of seven different types of cancer: breast cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, esophageal (food tube) cancer, and laryngeal (voice box) cancer. Because alcohol circulates through the bloodstream, it is able to cause damage to all parts of the body. When we consume alcohol, the body turns it into a chemical called acetaldehyde by the liver, as well as bacteria in the mouth or gut.
Acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging the DNA and preventing the cells from cell repair. Alcohol also causes changes to various hormone levels, such as estrogen and insulin.
Hormones are the body’s messengers. They tell the cells what to do, including when to grow and divide. Alcohol also makes it easier for other carcinogens to be absorbed in the cells between the mouth and the throat.
If this is new to you, you’re not alone. Research shows that awareness of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer is low. The National Cancer Opinion Survey asked over 4,000 American adults about their knowledge of risk factors for cancer.
While 80 percent of participants knew that tobacco was a cancer risk factor, and 66 percent knew the cancer dangers of sun exposure, a mere 30 percent of those surveyed knew that drinking alcohol is a risk factor for cancer. That means that 70 percent of Americans don’t know the link between alcohol and cancer. This is a cause for concern.
Cancer warning labels
Considering all the evidence that has been gathered to show the very definite link between alcohol and cancer, should alcoholic products not carry cancer warning labels? After the introduction of tougher and tougher tobacco packaging warning messages proved to be a successful deterrent, there are increasing calls to label alcoholic beverages in a similar way.
As far back as 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared alcohol to be carcinogenic. But, in spite of proposals from health officials and policy advocates to add a cancer warning to labels at the time, nothing happened due to industry lobbying. In fact, the alcohol industry tends to ignore health-related evidence that alcohol is dangerous. It actually creates a kind of “halo” effects, where alcohol looks innocent. But the truth is rather different.
These days, the WHO says that alcohol labeling is essential. They say it should be an integral part of a comprehensive public health strategy aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm. The organization views labeling as a critical first step to increasing awareness as well as helping to establish a broad, society-wide understanding of the harms of alcohol use.
The situation in America and some other countries
Alcohol warning labels are now mandatory in a number of countries, such as France, South Africa, Taiwan, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and others. And last year, a small town in Canada brought attention to the issue with the addition of cancer warning labels to wine and liquor bottles.
Now, the Consumer Federation of America and other advocacy groups has asked the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to add cancer warnings to alcoholic beverage labels. They told the Bureau that alcohol is estimated to be the third-largest contributor to cancer in women and the fourth largest in men. They also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which has questioned claims that low to moderate alcohol consumption can actually be beneficial to health. The proposed wording of the warning is as follows: “Government Warning:
According to the Surgeon General, the consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause cancer, including breast and colon cancers.” According to the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988, the Bureau is required to consult with the Surgeon General regarding updating the warning statement if scientific evidence justifies changes or additions to the statement or the deletion of it.
Some of the other groups responsible for the letter include the American Public Health Association, the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, and the American Institute for Cancer Research, all of whom say that existing labels need to be modernized to include cancer warning information on alcoholic beverage containers.
The role of WCRF
In addition, the World Cancer Research Fund International has welcomed proposals detailed in the Irish Public Health (Alcohol) Bill for a cancer warning on alcohol product labels, as well as a cancer health warning in alcohol product advertisements, various restrictions to broadcast advertisements for alcoholic products. This is because, the organization says, alcohol is a known carcinogen.
WCRF International analyzes global data on how alcohol consumption affects the chances of cancer development. Their Continuous Update Project shows that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of some cancers developing. And no amount of alcohol is a safe amount for at least of the cancers involved.
For example, just two alcoholic drinks a day, which translates to 30 grams), increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Drinking three or more alcoholic drinks a day (45 grams or more) increases the chances of developing liver and stomach cancers. Some cancers are likely to develop with any amount of alcohol consumed, but others are more likely when consumption is higher, at two to three drinks a day, which 30 to 45 grams of alcohol daily.
Generally, the more alcohol a person drinks, the higher their risk of many types of cancer. It appears that the time has come for the government to take responsibility for warning the public of the cancer-related dangers of consuming alcohol, even in the smallest quantities. Awareness is sorely lacking, and the risk is significant.