Drinking Alcohol Really Does Raise Your Cancer Risk, Doctors Warn

A glass of wine and a glass of beer in a bar
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Drinking alcohol, even a light or moderate amount, increases the risk of several common cancers, according to a leading group of cancer doctors.

This week, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) issued a statement identifying alcohol as a "definite" risk factor for cancer. The statement is intended to raise awareness about the strong link between alcohol and cancer.

"People typically don't associate drinking beer, wine and hard liquor with increasing their risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes," Dr. Bruce Johnson, the president of ASCO, said in a statement. Indeed, a recent survey from the organization found that 70 percent of Americans didn't know that drinking alcohol is a risk factor for cancer.

"However, the link between increased alcohol consumption and cancer has been firmly established," Johnson said. [10 Do's and Don'ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

It's estimated that, worldwide, about 5 percent of new cancers and 6 percent of cancer deaths each year are directly attributable to alcohol consumption, the ASCO statement said.

The statement also cites a recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, which concluded that there is convincing evidence that drinking alcohol can be a cause of seven cancers. These include breast cancer, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer and cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx and larynx (also referred to as "head and neck cancer").

Drinking even one alcoholic drink per day is linked with a 5 percent increase in the risk of breast cancer, a 17 percent increase in the risk of oropharyngeal cancer (a cancer of the middle part of the throat) and a 30 percent increase in the risk of esophageal cancer, compared with not drinking, according to a 2013 study cited by the ASCO statement.

Heavier drinking is linked with greater risks, the statement said. People who drink more than four alcoholic drinks a day have five times the risk of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx, five times the risk of esophageal cancer and two times the risk of liver cancer, compared with those who don't drink.

"The good news is that, just like people wear sunscreen to limit their risk of skin cancer, limiting alcohol intake is one more thing people can do to reduce their overall risk of developing cancer," said Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin and lead author of the ASCO statement.

For people who choose to drink alcohol, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that men consume no more than two drinks per day and women consume no more than one drink per day to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, including cancer.

ASCO's statement also offered some recommendations to reduce excessive alcohol consumption in the general population, including increasing alcohol taxes and prices, enhancing enforcement of laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol to minors, restricting youth exposure to alcohol-related advertising and providing alcohol screening in doctors' offices.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.