741,000 new cancer cases linked to alcohol consumption, study estimates
New research led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is estimating around 740,000 newly diagnosed cases of cancer last year can be attributed to alcohol consumption. The research calls for greater public health strategies to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer.
The association between increased cancer risk and alcohol consumption has long been known. A landmark study published in 2018 from a team of Cambridge University researchers homed in on how alcohol can damage DNA, offering some of the first clues to explain the causal mechanism at work.
Of course, directly linking alcohol consumption to cancer is difficult. With so many confounding factors it is challenging to quantify exactly how many cases of cancer can be directly attributable to drinking.
This new research offers the most current estimate by comparing data of alcohol intake per person collected in 2010 with new cancer cases reported in 2020. The findings estimate 741,300 new cases of cancer in 2020 could be associated with alcohol consumption, which is around 4 percent of all new cancer cases globally.
The link between alcohol and cancer varied substantially by geography. Six percent of new cancer cases in China could be linked with alcohol consumption, while only around three percent of new cases in the United States are potentially alcohol-related.
"Trends suggest that although there is a decrease in alcohol consumption per person in many European countries, alcohol use is on the rise in Asian countries such as China and India, and in sub-Saharan Africa,” reports Harriet Rumgay from the IARC.
Men accounted for three-quarters of all alcohol-linked cancer cases. Oesophagus, liver, and breast cancers were the most common linked to drinking. And, while heavy drinking accounted for most of the cases, one in seven of all alcohol-linked cancers were associated with moderate drinking.
“Our study highlights the contribution of even relatively low levels of drinking to rates of cancer, which is concerning, but also suggests that small changes to public drinking behavior could positively impact future cancer rates,” says Rumgay.
The researchers are clear to note the limitations of these kinds of analyses. For example, the study did not account for the relationship between alcohol and tobacco consumption, two carcinogenic substances often synergistically consumed.
However, the study does indicate its conclusions are conservative estimates based on per-capita alcohol consumption from commercial sales numbers. Around a quarter of all global alcohol consumption is thought to occur outside of commercially recorded sales data, so it is hypothesized the current findings are more likely an under-estimate of the total impact alcohol has on cancer.
Rumgay says the most important takeaway from this new research is to raise awareness of the relationship between alcohol and cancer. She recommends a number of policy-based public health interventions to help reduce the global burden of alcohol-related cancer.
“Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labeling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer,” says Rumgay. “Tax and pricing policies that have led to decreased alcohol intake in Europe, including increased excise taxes and minimum unit pricing, could also be implemented in other world regions.”
The new study was published in The Lancet Oncology.
Source: The Lancet