A drink a day won’t keep cancer at bay

The link between alcohol and cancer is the subject of an important new research paper using data from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study – and the findings are disturbing to say the least. The authors found not only that regular alcohol consumption confers a significant risk of cancer, but that just seven drinks a week raises the relative risk of alcohol-linked cancers by an average of 10%.

There is no “healthy” amount of alcohol to drink, according to new research exploring alcohol-related cancers.

In one of the largest ever studies of its kind, researchers from Cancer Council NSW and other institutions tracked more than 220,000 participants of the 45 and Up Study over five years, during which time around 17,000 cancers were diagnosed. 

Seven types of cancer were linked to alcohol consumption – namely liver, oesophagus, mouth, pharynx, larynx, bowel and breast cancers. Consumption of more than 14 drinks a week raised the absolute cumulative risk of these cancers by 4.4% in men and 5.4% in women, compared with drinking less than one drink per week. The strongest association was with liver cancer: people consuming 7-14 drinks a week had a 48% increase in the relative risk of liver cancer compared with less than one drink a week, while those drinking more than that had a 202%.

Senior author Marianne Weber, a Senior Research Fellow at Cancer Council NSW, says that while current NHMRC guidelines encourage people to limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week, her team’s research shows that there is actually no “healthy” amount of alcohol to drink, with even seven drinks a week increasing the relative risk of the seven alcohol-related cancers by 10%.

She says her team’s findings are particularly relevant to the way people are living their lives in 2020, where large populations have had to be locked down during the pandemic and alcohol consumption rates have soared.

“A recent survey found that 14% of Australians overall and 18% of women had increased their alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.If we don’t reverse this trend we could see a significant rise in cancers caused by alcohol, which is already attributed to around 3500 new cancer cases each year in Australia,” she says.

The authors point out that although Australians are very familiar with the message that smoking and exposure to UV rays can cause cancer, they are much less likely to realise the link with alcohol.

The paper is published by the British Journal of Cancer and can be accessed here.