One Drink a Day Still Risky

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Researchers looking at cancer deaths in the U.S. have been able to determine the risk attributable to alcohol consumption. And the news isn’t good for even moderate drinkers.

Overall, alcohol is responsible for between 18,000 and 21,000 cancer deaths a year in the U.S. - an estimated 3.5 percent of the total deaths from cancer. Most of these are attributable to people who average three or more drinks a day – a considerable amount.

But not all can be explained by alcohol abuse. According to the study, published in The American Journal of Public Health (abstract here), as few as one to one-and-a-half daily drinks increase the risk of getting cancer, accounting for a third of the deaths due to alcohol.

The type of cancer also varied. Breast cancer showed the most prevalent effect for women, while in men, alcohol consumption increased mouth and throat cancer the most.

Alcohol plays a leading role in cancer deaths

The authors point out that the role of alcohol adds enough that more people die from alcohol-related cancers alone than for entire cancer categories. For example, all ovarian cancer deaths and all melanoma-type skin cancer are fewer than cancers from alcohol consumption. What this means is that if alcohol were entirely banned, it would prevent as many cancer deaths as curing either ovarian or skin cancer outright.

Dr. David Nelson, one of the researchers involved, was quoted in an NBC News article: “I just don’t think there’s enough attention across the board, from physicians or public health. It’s missing in plain sight.”

Cancer risk warning label on alcoholic beverages?

Does this mean that alcoholic beverages will now need a cancer risk warning label? Unlikely. But for the health conscious, the benefits touted for moderate drinking may have to be reconsidered. They’ll have to decide whether the anti-oxidants they get in their glass of wine are worth the higher risk of cancer later on. Benefits shown with moderate drinking for the heart will have to be balanced against these new concerns.

On the upside, doctors now have more ammunition to help their patients decide to stop drinking, and this new factor has to be added in when assessing overall cancer risk.

Photo by John Nyboer

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