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A study published yesterday in the journal The Lancet Oncology found that 4% of all new cases of cancer in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption.

Researchers involved in the study looked at alcohol consumption estimates for 2010 and data on cancer cases from 2020. The 10-year latency period was to account for the lengthy development of the cancer types included in the study – oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and esophagus, as well as colon, rectum, liver and female breast.

Of the 741,300 cases linked to alcohol, the study found cancers of the esophagus, liver and breast contributed the most.

Heavy drinking (more than 60 grams per day, or the equivalent of more than six alcoholic drinks) accounted for nearly 47% of cases, and risky drinking (between 20 to 60 grams per day) accounted for over 39% of cases. Moderate drinking (less than 20 grams or up to two drinks per day) contributed to 14% of cases.

Figure showing alcohol consumption related cancer cases globally

Population attributable fractions, by alcohol consumption category, sex, and world region. [The Lancet Oncology]

“This high-quality study uses rigorous methods and approaches to analyze data from many studies all together, giving a high level of confidence in the data,” said Dr. Shelley Tworoger, associate center director of Population Science at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Tworoger says alcohol consumption, especially heavy or binge drinking, is an important contributor to the development of some cancers, including head and neck, gastrointestinal and among women, breast cancer.

“With the COVID pandemic, studies have suggested an increase in heavy or binge drinking, and these patterns are associated with developing cancer and heart disease,” she said. “However, some studies have shown potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially in men.”

The authors of the study believe that effective policy and public awareness of the cancer risks associated with alcohol could alleviate the burden of alcohol-attributable cancers.

“Overall, drinking is a personal choice,” said Tworoger, “but limiting your intake or not drinking at all is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.”