Study shows alcohol consumption is a leading preventable cause of cancer death in the US

Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have shown that alcohol is a major contributor to cancer deaths and years of potential life lost. These findings, published in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, also show that reducing alcohol consumption is an important cancer prevention strategy as alcohol is a known carcinogen even when consumed in small quantities.

Previous studies consistently have shown that alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver. More recent research has shown that alcohol also increases the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum and female breast. While estimates have shown that alcohol accounts for about four percent of all cancer-related deaths worldwide, there is a lack of literature focusing on cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Timothy Naimi, MD, MPH, from the Department of Medicine at BUSM and colleagues from the National Cancer Institute, the Alcohol Research Group, Public Health Institute and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, examined recent data from the U.S. on alcohol consumption and cancer mortality. They found that alcohol resulted in approximately 20,000 cancer deaths annually, accounting for about 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.

Breast cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in women, accounting for approximately 6,000 deaths annually, or about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths. Cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were common causes of alcohol-attributable cancer mortality in men, resulting in a total of about 6,000 annual deaths.

The researchers also found that each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost. In addition, although higher levels of alcohol consumption led to a higher cancer risk, average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day or less accounted for 30 percent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

ifferent people use different strategies so feel free to pick and choose the ones that fit you the best from the list below. Remember - if you feel that you drink too much then any reduction that you make at all is a success!!

1) Add abstinence days
If you drink every day of the week then you might want to start by adding one abstinence day per week and eventually add more days as you go along. Even if you don’t drink every day of the week, adding more abstinence days is good strategy for reducing over all consumption. WARNING: If you are afraid that you might suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking then be sure to taper off safely first.

2) Start later
Some people find that starting drinking later in the day can help them to reduce over all consumption per drinking session. If this works for you then great! If you find yourself drinking later into the night because of starting later however, you might want to abandon this strategy.

3) Stop earlier
Picking a specific time to stop drinking for the day can also help many people to reduce their over all consumption per session. Many wine drinkers decide to brush their teeth to put a period to the wine drinking because wine tastes very bad after brushing.

4) Limit your cash
Some people who only drink in bars find that bringing a limited supply of cash and no credit or debit cards to the bar with them helps them to stop within a reasonable limit.

5) Buy only what you plan to drink
Some people who drink at home find that a good way to limit consumption is to keep no alcohol in the house and to only buy alcohol on the day they plan to drink it and to only buy enough for that drinking session.

6) Chart your drinks
Measuring your drinks to ensure that they are standard drinks and charting them on a calendar of some sort is a strategy which many people find highly effective in helping them to cut back on their drinking.

7) Add moderation days
Picking some days when you choose to only drink moderately is another way to reduce over all alcohol consumption. It is perfectly reasonable to alternate abstinence days with moderation days and intoxication days as a strategy.

8) Get meds
There are a number of medications and supplements which have proven effectiveness in helping people to reduce the quantity of alcohol which they drink including naltrexone, glutamate and kudzu.

“The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians,” said Naimi, who served as the paper’s senior author. “Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”

Drinking Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Drinking alcohol, especially along with smoking, increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx and larynx. Fortunately, these cancers are all very rare, accounting in total for only 1% of all cancer deaths in the U.S.

The moderate consumption of alcohol doesn’t increase the risk of the most common cancers, except possibly for the inconclusive cases of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, as listed by the National Cancer Institute alphabetically:

  Bladder Cancer
  Breast Cancer
  Colorectal Cancer
  Endometrial Cancer
  Kidney Cancer (Renal Cell)
  Lung Cancer
  Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  Ovarian Cancer
  Prostate Cancer
  Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma)

Of these 12 most common cancers, the risk of two (kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) are reduced by consuming alcohol in moderation.


Gina DiGravio
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Boston University Medical Center


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