Working to reduce alcohol harm

Alcohol and Cancer

Alcohol causes cancer and the more we drink the greater our risk of alcohol-related cancer.

Alcohol is classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as there is a proven, causal link between alcohol and several types of cancer.

Alcohol consumption can cause cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, bowel and female breast. All these cancers showed evidence of a dose-response relationship – the risk of cancer increases steadily with greater volumes of alcohol consumption.

There is no ’safe’ threshold of alcohol consumption and even low to moderate amounts of alcohol are a risk when it comes to cancer. The risk increases in line with alcohol consumption and therefore the only way to reduce the risk of an alcohol-related cancer is reduce alcohol consumption. Read Alcohol Action Ireland’s Submission on a National Cancer Strategy, submitted in July 2015.

Below are some the key facts and presentations regarding alcohol and cancer.

  • 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 people die from these diseases every year, according to the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP).
  • The NCCP research found that, between 2001 and 2010, 6.7% of male cancer deaths and 4.6% of female cancer deaths in Ireland were attributable to alcohol – 2,823 men and 1,700 women.
  • More than half of all head and neck cancers in Ireland during that period were associated with alcohol consumption, while 12% of all breast cancers were associated with alcohol consumption.
  • Among Irish men, the majority (63.6%) of alcohol-related cancer deaths were in the upper-aero digestive tract, while among Irish women, four in ten (40.9%) alcohol-related cancer deaths were due to breast cancer.
  • The NCCP stated that over half of alcohol related cancers in Ireland are preventable by adhering to low-risk weekly guidelines for alcohol consumption.
  • Consumption of just one standard drink per day is associated with a 9% increase in the risk of developing breast cancer, compared to non-drinkers, while consuming 3 to 6 standard drinks per day increases the risk of breast cancer to 41%.
  • The cancer risks from alcohol are the same, regardless of the type of alcoholic beverage consumed (e.g. wine, beer or spirits). It has been established that ethanol, and not any other ingredients of alcoholic beverages, is the ingredient that mainly causes cancer, with acetaldehyde (a toxic chemical produced when our bodies break down alcohol) likely to be the most important biological carcinogen.
  • In Ireland the proportion of alcohol related deaths from cancer is higher than the European average, at 20.7% for men (versus 17%) and 38.8% for women (versus 31%).
  • The risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and oesophagus from alcohol consumption in combination with smoking tobacco is multiplicative (rather than additive) and far greater than either drinking alcohol or smoking alone.
  • Three people in Ireland die from oral and pharyngeal cancer (OPC) every week – which is more than skin melanoma or cervical cancer. Two major risk factors for OPC are tobacco and alcohol consumption.
  • The projected number of new cases of alcohol-related cancers in the Republic of Ireland is expected to double by the year 2020 for women and to increase by 81% for men during the same period.
  • In 2010, alcohol-attributable cancer caused 337,400 deaths worldwide – 91,500 deaths among women and 245,900 deaths among men. However, deaths from alcohol-related cancers are most common in Europe, which is the heaviest drinking region in the world.
  • The main causes of alcohol-related death in European men are cirrhosis (26%), unintentional injury (23%) and cancer (17%). In European women, the main causes of alcohol related death are cirrhosis (37%) and cancer (31% – with breast cancer alone accounting for 21%).
  • Alcoholic beverages are also generally high in calories and can lead to weight gain. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of many types of cancer.

Follow this link for research and reports on alcohol and cancer

View the presentation on alcohol and cancer given by Dr Marie Laffoy, community oncology adviser with the NCCP, to the Oireachtas Cross Party Group on Alcohol Harm in December 2014:

Here you can read Alcohol Action Ireland’s submission to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee for its February 2013   Report on Changes in Lifestyle can prevent approximately one third of Cancers. How does Government and society respond to this challenge?

In the above submission, we asked the question: if the role of placement and promotion in relation to tobacco is recognised – then why are the rules around alcohol placement, promotion and accessibility and availability so different for alcohol? After all, alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined and one person dies every seven hours in Ireland from an alcohol-related illness.
In this video, Kathleen O’Meara, formerly Head of Advocacy and Communications with the Irish Cancer Society, looks at how tobacco-related harm has been reduced in Ireland and looks at the parallels between alcohol and tobacco.

Kathleen O’Meara speaks at Alcohol Action Ireland’s conference “Time Please… For Change” from Alcohol Action Ireland on Vimeo.

In this presentation from the European Week Against Cancer Conference 2013, Dr Peter Anderson looks at the relationship between alcohol and cancer.