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Drinking Causes 3.5% of Cancer Deaths – More Than from Melanoma, New Study Finds

February 14, 2013 | Carolyn Newbergh

A new study sounds the alert that the risk of dying from a cancer caused by drinking any amount of alcohol should be taken just as seriously as the risk of dying from melanoma and ovarian cancers – but it’s not.

"Wine Glass" by Mitchell3417 from Flickr Creative CommonsThe study, by researchers from the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group (ARG), the National Cancer Institute, the Boston University Medical Center and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, finds that an estimated 19,500 Americans died from alcohol-attributable cancers in 2009, accounting for approximately 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths. More people died from alcohol-related cancers than from melanoma and ovarian cancer in 2009 – and the number of alcohol-caused cancer deaths represented two-thirds of the deaths from prostate cancer.

“Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy, yet receives surprisingly little attention among public health, medical, cancer, advocacy, and other organizations in the United States, especially when compared with efforts related to other cancer prevention topics such as screening, genetics, tobacco, and obesity,” the authors state in the article “Alcohol-Attributable Cancer Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost in the United States,” which appears in the online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

Each cancer death tied to alcohol shortened a life by an average of about 18 years, according to the study, the first in 30 years to quantify the cancer death toll from alcohol in the US.

The study’s ability to produce good estimates was made possible by two nationwide surveys of adults: the 2009-2010 National Alcohol Survey performed by ARG, which gathers detailed data on alcohol such as the frequency of drinking at various quantities, and the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which collects information on a number of health risk factors, including quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Causes Different Cancers in the Genders

The study further confirmed others’ findings that alcohol causes different types of cancers in men and women, but also pinned down just how many. Cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus caused a majority of the alcohol-related deaths in men, about 6,000 deaths annually. The most common kind of alcohol-caused cancer in women was breast cancer, also resulting in about 6,000 deaths annually – and accounting for about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths in women.

“Our finding that many breast cancer deaths are attributable to alcohol consumption strongly suggests that greater emphasis on the role of alcohol as an important risk factor for breast cancer is needed,” the authors state.  

Death Toll from Alcohol-Caused Cancers Unchanged Over 30 Years

The 3.5 percent estimate of cancer deaths caused by alcohol is slightly higher than the 3 percent that other studies have previously found, perhaps because the current study included more cancers, the authors state. But the number of alcohol-caused cancer deaths has essentially remained the same over 30 years, they report.

“[O]ur findings demonstrate there has been little, if any, progress in reducing alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in the United States,” the authors write.

Balancing Heart Health with Overall Health

It is not news that alcohol is carcinogenic, but other studies have also suggested to the public that low to moderate drinking is heart-healthy, leaving a confusing mixed message. The authors find that these other studies had “serious limitations.”

“When viewed in the broad context across all health effects among alcohol users, alcohol results in 10 times as many deaths as it prevents in the United States even after one considers possible beneficial effects of low-level use for cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” they wrote. “For most alcohol users, therefore, reducing alcohol consumption would likely improve their health in many ways in addition to reducing cancer risk.”

This study also adds to the accumulating body of evidence that although the risk of cancer rises with each glass of alcohol, even at lower levels of one glass a day, alcohol poses a risk to health. Indeed, average amounts up to one-and-a-half drinks per day contributed from 26 to 35% of the total cancer deaths from alcohol. “In sum, there is no apparent threshold when it comes to alcohol and cancer risk,” the authors write. “For cancer prevention purposes, this means it is better to drink alcohol at low levels, with the lowest risk involving not drinking at all.”

The first author on the study is David E. Nelson, MD, MPH, from the NCI. Three ARG authors who contributed to the study: Tom Greenfield, PhD, William Kerr, PhD, and Yu Ye, MA.

The study has received extensive coverage in such media outlets as Prevention, the New York Daily News, WebMd, Science Daily and denverpost.com, and in interviews with ARG scientific director Thomas Greenfiled in the San Francisco Chronicle and on KCBS radio in San Francisco, KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco and KQED Forum

Carolyn Newbergh is a writer and editor in PHI's Communications Department