Few Americans aware of cancer risks posed by alcohol: study

Story at a glance

  • Although alcohol consumption is a leading modifiable risk factor for cancer, many Americans are unaware of the link between the disease and drinking.

  • Seven cancer types are associated with alcohol consumption, and risks increase alongside intake.

  • Researchers suggest putting cancer warning labels on beverages could help raise awareness.

A low number of Americans are aware of the myriad cancer risks posed by alcohol consumption.

Just over 30 percent know liquor can increase the risk of certain cancers, while 25 percent said the same about beer and 20 percent about wine, according to a new study from the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR).

More Americans believe wine decreases cancer risk compared with beer and liquor, and over half of those surveyed did not know how the beverages affected cancer risk.

Data were gleaned from a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 U.S. adults carried out in 2020. Findings were consistent regardless of whether respondents drank or not.

“All types of alcoholic beverages, including wine, increase cancer risk,” said lead author William M.P. Klein, associate director of the National Cancer Institute’s Behavioral Research Program, in a release.

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Any beverage containing ethanol—including wine, beer and liquor— increases the risk of cancer. Alcohol use accounts for 6 percent of all cancer cases in the United States and 4 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Studies have shown a link between alcohol intake and cancers of the mouth, throat, voicebox, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast.

The risks are especially elevated for breast cancer. Compared with women who don’t drink, those who consume three alcoholic beverages a week are 15 percent more likely to develop breast cancer, while that risk increases by 10 percent for each additional drink women regularly consume each day.

However, survey respondents who were aware of the heart disease risks posed by alcohol were more likely to say they knew of the alcohol-cancer link.

Responses also varied by age, as adults over the age of 60 demonstrated lower awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer than those between the ages 18 and 39. Authors noted this could be due to more long-standing drinking habits among older adults.

Recent data show alcohol and drug-related deaths have spiked among Americans aged 65 and older, with alcohol-induced death rates increasing by 18 percent from 2020 to 2021.

The AACR study’s findings “underscore the need to develop interventions for educating the public about the cancer risks of alcohol use, particularly in the prevailing context of national dialogue about the purported heart health benefits of wine,” Klein said.

Interventions could include mass media campaigns, tailored messaging, cancer warning labels, and increased communication between patients and providers, researchers said.

Some data were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic—when Americans reported drinking more than usual—marking a limitation to the study.

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