The Surprising Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

Posted on by DCPC

Cancer and alcohol infographic
Infographic: Drinking alcohol raises the risk of some cancers. The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer.
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, 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.

Posted on by DCPC

17 comments on “The Surprising Link Between Alcohol and Cancer”

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    I have just started to become aware of the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. 25 years ago I was very focused on the health benefits of drinking wine. After all these years I have realized as I watched all my friends become sick or almost die and even die from cancer, heart disease, liver problems, autoimmune diseases etc., the common link appeared to be alcohol consumption. I was selling wine and the people I worked with were on all kinds of medication yet talking about how great wine was for your health. I have recently discovered wine can cause gut inflammation and excessive heartburn. Yeasts in beer combined with all the GMO’s cause genetic problems and antibodies that lead to autoimmune disease. Hard liquor is too high in alcohol content. It is easy to understand drinking; people do not like to feel their emotions. They want their reality distorted. Life can overwhelm people. I think a lot of people don’t care anymore. I have lost a lot of friends to alcohol. And, marijuana hasn’t been studied enough to know the long term results on health. I don’t think we need anything that alters the mind. Nothing.

    Why do you claim EXCESSIVE when its just the normal everyday drinking ? And why is allowed to be served where children are present ? And WHy is it still advertised all over the place,sold in gas stations and evrywhere else including Pharmacies and drug stores? And how come It only pays pennies in taxes when smokers are paying 400% more in taxes and harming nobody ? Why the Hypocrisy and double Standard Saying EXCESSIVE DRINKING ? hmmmmmmmmmmmm

    My interest in the subject for personal health choices has brought me to the drinking/cancer relationship while still encountering extraneous factors in the decision to use alcohol or patronize a local beer bars. My perceived choice seems to be watching TV alone against visiting with “friends” at the bar. The information provided here presents useful, yet frightening, consequences. I continue to sense frustration regarding my choices.

    All around the world, we hear how cancer has been the cause of someone’s death. In the United States it is the second leading cause of death, after heart disease. The development of most cancer cases are still unknown, however, the fact that excessive alcohol consumption maybe a link to cancer is very astonishing. Many people like myself, thought that a certain amount of alcohol consumption is actually good for ones health. It helps reduce the risk of the number one cause of death in the United States, heart disease, yet what seemed moderate for us may not actually be the case. The misinterpreted moderate drinking habits that we all thought was healthy may in fact be the causing effect of high blood pressure, liver disease, pancreatic disease, and some types of strokes.
    The two most common assumptions linked to the cause of cancer are stress and genetic mutation. I am in shock to be informed that alcohol is also a common threat. We are all aware of alcohol consumption being a cause of serious health problems, some of which are cirrhosis of the liver and injuries sustained in automobile accidents. However, is alcohol the actual perpetrator of causing cancer or does it merely increase one’s risk? For me, I believe that it does not necessarily cause cancer but rather increases the risk in certain people. It would be of interest to look into one’s family’s health history, specifically their family tie to cancer, to see if there already exists a genetic predisposition to the disease.
    In my opinion, the studies linking heavy alcohol consumption to throat, liver, breast and mouth cancer should be spread throughout the world. There should be awareness campaigns, emphasizing the change in controversy of the consumption of alcohol drinks. Educating others is the singe most effective tool to spread good public health. With no education and awareness building, the world has no clear consciousness of good health habits and the strive for good public health would not be feasible. I would take upon myself in spreading the word about the information linking alcohol use to cancer. However, unfortunately just as the findings of smoking cigarettes causes cancer has not stopped a vast majority of people from smoking, this finding of alcohol triggering the same health problem might not make much of a difference either. Yet in hopes this might helping promote the scientific evidence, and encourage people to follow healthier lifestyle to not come across alcohol induced cancer.
    People need to be aware of what are actually considered as appropriate portions for alcohol use, yet these portions may differ for each individual. Social attitudes towards alcohol today are similar to those of cigarette use before, when it was not a threatening habit. Yet as time goes by future generation will hopefully be more aware of the consequences for excessive alcohol use and distinguish between enjoying portion and portions that can be dangerous.

    Drinking alcohol is health damaging at any level.Alcohol readily available everywhere and cheap any one can afford it. Why are we kidding ourselves by saying it is ok to drink in moderation this need to be stopped. More education is essential and it is definitely start at home. Ethanol is toxic , slowly alter cell membranes and alter our beautiful mind.

    I’m sorry but I think this is too general.. I’m Italian …all my relatives live to be very old even a hundred and they have at least one glass of wine almost every day. They don’t binge drink and they don’t drink a lot of hard liquor.I bet there’s comorbidity with just about everybody you looked at and then there’s a genetic factor too. I’m not saying drink too much or be an alcoholic – no that will kill you in lots of ways I’m quite sure!

    I lost my beautiful Italian husband to cancer and his culture instilled a normal habit of drinking. I warned him he is drinking too much and he would defend it. So sad. Perhaps wine in North America is the culprit and Italy wine is less artificial

    Kudos to you for saying this in 2018 . Indeed, what you write is so true. I didn’t know this fact in the many years i drank moderately . Then I got cancer at age 36. It took me awhile to quit alcohol. I was graced with some poignant facts from a friend who knew a lot about the biological effects of alcohol. That conversation prompted me to quit for good . I can enjoy friends and bars even more than I ever did when my confidence was slightly undercut by drinking a glass of wine.

    Here we find that the CDC fully acknowledges a serious link between alcohol consumption and cancer. When I first heard of the connection recently, I thought it was misinformation. But here it is. Logically, I asked how I could have missed this information. Surely, there must be a warning on every bottle. There is a “Government warning”…It goes something like this. “1. Dont drink if you are pregnant. Alcohol has been proven to cause birth defects. 2. Drinking can impair your ability to drive or operate a vehicle… then there’s a comma ( not even a point # 3) followed by only 5 little words “ and may cause health problems”. That is THE extent of your warning that this can bring your life to a miserable cancerous ending, or at best, suffer from it. All the science, all the studies, and this is the best they can do to warn us? People have never even heard of this connection. So why is “ the warning” there hidden and buried after the #1 and # 2 reasons. Wow. I smell big bucks under the rug.

    You are 100 percent correct Melissa. My beautiful husband found out the hard way with colon cancer. I miss him a lot and so do his six young kids

    I remember reading a few years ago that the recommendations were: no more than one drink per day for men and women. But in the above you write the old recommendations 1 drink for women, 2 for men. Why the discrepancy? Also, I can’t tell you the number of people have heard about this link between alcohol and cancer and don’t want to hear about it. We are a period like the pre-Surgeon-General’s report on smoking.

    The connection between alcohol and cancer has been acknowledged by the WHO since 1988.

    The US drinking guidelines for those who drink are 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 for men.

    These have not changed in many years. Some have suggested lowering it. Other countries have lower (and higher) consumption recommendations.

    Drinking alcohol is obviously not a health food but teetotalers also drink something , very often sodas and milk . The French have the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in the Western world inspite of a diet that includes wine and saturated fat, e.g butter and cheese. Food is complex. Scientists too often look at the individual chemicals and not at the whole food My motto is “the dose makes the poison” , drink some wine but don’t finish the bottle

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Page last reviewed: Thursday, September 9, 2021
Page last updated: Thursday, September 9, 2021