Researchers call for political action to reduce alcohol consumption

Researchers call for political action to raise awareness of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. [Nestor Rizhniak / SHUTTERSTOCK]

A study by Lancet Oncology has found that 4% of all newly diagnosed cancers in 2020 may be associated with drinking alcohol, with the highest proportion, or some 6%, in Central and Eastern Europe.

Alcohol consumption has been shown to cause DNA damage through increased production of harmful chemicals in the body and affect hormone production, which can contribute to cancer development. Alcohol can also worsen the cancer-causing effects of other substances, such as tobacco.

The global peer-reviewed study has shown that alcohol consumption is linked to more than 740,000 new cancer cases in 2020. Cancers of the oesophagus, liver, and breast accounted for the largest number of new cases, followed by colorectal cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat.

To address this issue, researchers said, it is urgently needed to raise public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancers and increase government interventions to reduce alcohol consumption in worst-affected regions.

“Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labelling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer,” said Harriet Rumgay of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

The local context, she added “is essential for successful policy around alcohol consumption and will be key to reducing cancer cases linked to drinking”.

The study estimates that men accounted for the majority of alcohol-associated cancer cases, while women accounted for slightly more than a quarter of cases.

Amongst women, the largest proportions of cancer cases attributed to alcohol were estimated in Central and Eastern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Amongst men, the largest proportions of cancer cases linked to alcohol were found in Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia.  

Despite tax and pricing policies that have led to decreased alcohol intake in Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, together with the Eastern Asia region, had the highest proportions of cancer cases that could be associated with alcohol, at 6%. In comparison, the lowest proportions were found in Northern Africa and Western Asia, both below 1%.

While risky and heavy drinking led to the largest proportion of cancer cases, moderate drinking – the equivalent of around two daily drinks – accounted for almost one-seventh of all alcohol-associated cases.

“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 behaviour could positively impact future cancer rates,” said Rumgay.

In contrast to these findings, the EU cancer plan presented in February addresses only harmful alcohol consumption.

EU goes easy on alcohol in cancer plan

Alcoholic drinks have been treated differently to tobacco products in Europe’s Beating cancer plan, as overuse, not its use, will be targeted by the Commission’s initiatives.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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