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The Surprising Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

Categories: Other

By Dafna Kanny, PhD
Senior Scientist, Excessive Alcohol Use Prevention Team, Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch, CDC’s Division of Population Health

Working at CDC often means wearing your “expert hat” wherever you go. One weekend, while pushing my shopping cart in a grocery store, I ran into a CDC colleague I haven’t seen in a while. After catching up on the latest news about our kids, we started chatting about healthy foods; after all, we were at the grocery store.

The conversation quickly turned to our dinner plans for that evening. As a scientist in CDC’s Alcohol Program, I soon found myself wearing my “expert hat” and answering questions on how much alcohol can be consumed. I based my answer on the recommendations in the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, [PDF-967KB] which define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. My colleague was surprised to hear this, as is often the case when people learn about these Guidelines.

There is often a lot of confusion about alcohol consumption in the United States. What is clear, though, is that excessive drinking or drinking too much* is a serious public health problem. It kills about 88,000 Americans each year. In 2006, it cost the United States about $224 billion ($1.90 per drink).

Often when people think about the effects of drinking too much, images of car crashes or other fatal injuries come to mind. However, alcohol is also an important—though often overlooked—risk factor for cancer. In fact, studies have shown that alcohol was responsible for about 20,000 cancer deaths in the United States in 2009. Alcohol is known to be a risk factor for cancers of the head and neck (mouth, throat, and voice box), liver, colon, rectum, and breast. According to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, this risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Yet about 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drinks** an average of 4 times per month, and consumes an average of 8 drinks per binge episode, far exceeding the definition of moderate drinking specified in the Dietary Guidelines.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. So what should we be aware of? First, drinking too much is never a good idea. Second, if you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Lastly, there are effective ways to reduce excessive drinking that can help reduce the risk of cancer and of many other health problems too.

*Drinking too much includes binge drinking** (for women, 4 or more drinks on an occasion, within about 2 hours; for men, 5 or more drinks), heavy drinking (for women, 8 or more drinks per week; for men, 15 or more drinks per week), and any drinking by pregnant women or those younger than 21 years.

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