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Researchers: ‘There is no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk’

Everyone knows that large quantities of almost anything can be bad for you. However, a group of researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health have found that alcohol is a “major” contributor to cancer deaths in the United States, even when consumed in small amounts.

“Alcohol remains a major contributor to cancer mortality and YPLL [years of potential life lost]. Higher consumption increases risk but there is no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk. Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy,” write the authors in the study’s abstract.

While previous research has consistently shown that alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver, more recent research has demonstrated that alcohol consumption also increases the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum and female breast.

With an overwhelming amount of literature on cancer-related deaths worldwide, this group of researchers set out to examine cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Researchers reviewed recent data from the U.S. on alcohol consumption and cancer-related deaths.

“We used 2 methods to calculate population-attributable fractions. We based relative risks on meta-analyses published since 2000, and adult alcohol consumption on data from the 2009 Alcohol Epidemiologic Data System, 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and 2009–2010 National Alcohol Survey,” write the authors.

They found that alcohol led to approximately 20,000 cancer deaths annually, indicating that alcohol contributes to about 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.

Researchers discovered that breast cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in women (about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths). In Men, they found that cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were common causes of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths (approximately 6,000 deaths annually).

Researchers also found that each alcohol-related cancer death resulted in an average of 18 years of potential life lost. They believe that average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day or less made up 30 percent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths. However, they note that higher levels of alcohol consumption were associated with a higher cancer risk.

Dr. Timothy Naimi, from the Department of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, contends that the relationship between alcohol and cancer “is not widely appreciated by the public” and “underemphasized” by physicians.

The study’s findings were published in the American Journal of Public Health.