independent advocate reducing 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. 

There is no ’safe’ threshold of alcohol consumption and even low to moderate amounts of alcohol are a risk when it comes to cancer.  

All alcohol-related cancers show a dose-response relationship with alcohol use on an exponential scale, i.e. the risk of developing cancer increases with increasing volume of alcohol consumed.  

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. 

A recent global Lancet study found that in 2020 there were approximately 1000 alcohol related cancer cases in Ireland – 670 in men and 380 in women. 

According to the Health Research Board, between 2012 and 2017, there were 55,097 discharges from Irish hospitals due to alcohol-related cancers. 

However, the magnitude of the risk varies by cancer site. There is evidence that alcohol may increase risk of cancer even at very low levels of consumption.  For example, women are at greater risk of developing breast cancer from consuming <21 g of pure alcohol (approximately two standard drinks or more) per day. 

Despite all of the scientific evidence regarding the negative health consequences of drinking alcohol, research demonstrates poor public knowledge of the association between alcohol and a range of alcohol-related health conditions, including cancer. Findings from a Healthy Ireland Survey demonstrate that current public knowledge of the link between cancer and alcohol in Ireland is low. Just one-quarter of Irish women are aware of the direct link between alcohol and breast cancer, despite this being the most common type of cancer among women in Ireland. 

This, coupled with the very real health dangers posed by alcohol, supports the need for the urgent implementation of health warning labels on alcohol products as set out in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018. 

Section 12 of the Act stipulates that all alcohol products to be sold in Ireland will be required to display, among other things, a warning informing the public of the direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers. Additionally, details of a website, to be established and maintained by the HSE, will provide public health information in relation to alcohol consumption. 

Such health warning labels will ensure that the public is fully informed of the health risks associated with alcohol consumption.  

Ireland’s laws regarding labelling are in line with the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan which calls for alcohol cancer warning labels by the end of 2023.