Alcohol and Lung Cancer

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A report submitted at the latest American College of Chest Physicians conference helps answer a question that arose earlier this year. The earlier study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in May, showed a correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and the risk of developing cancer. The risk increased with as little as two additional drinks a day (from one drink to three). However, it didn’t show any difference in lung cancer, especially with those who smoked as well as consumed alcohol.

This latest study concentrated on lung cancer specifically. From the presentation: “We conclude that, with respect to lung cancer, 1) Heavier, but not light-moderate alcohol drinking is associated with increased risk, 2) Variations in increased risk by beverage choice are likely due to confounding by other lifestyle traits.”

The specific confounding factors include smoking. In short, if you drink heavily, you’ve got a higher risk of getting lung cancer whether or not you smoke. But if you just smoke, your risk is as high or higher. Drinking and smoking together don’t make a measurable difference – probably because the risk is already maxed out. Importantly, the results are not just a reflection of, “people like to smoke and drink.” This was controlled for.

The type of alcoholic beverage seemed to make a difference, but only when linked to other factors (income and race). For wines, the type didn’t matter. There was no protective effect from drinking red wine instead of white.

The connection between drinking and lung cancer isn’t yet known, but the results are unambiguous: increased risk, even without smoking. In a society where smoking has been so strongly linked to a fatal disease, it may be worthwhile to mention this to drinkers as well.

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