Busting the Myths Surrounding Alcohol and Cancer Risks

There are two groups responsible for disseminating information regarding alcohol consumption and cancer. One of these is scientists who research and distribute facts as part of their job. The other group is alcohol producers, who provide information due to their obligation to consumers’ health. As a rule,  alcohol producers should disseminate information based on scientists’ findings. However, there appear to be cases where the flow of information detracts from this rule. We will be exploring these cases in a chronological approach. In this way, we will see the developments in the relationship between cancer and alcohol through different decades. Finally, we will uncover inconsistencies in information between scientists and alcohol producers.

Findings From Older Studies

Research on the relationship between alcohol and cancer goes back more than 30 years. In 1988, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published an extremely detailed document on the effects of alcohol drinking as a cancer risk. It featured hundreds of studies highlighting alcohol and cancer through cohort, case-control, and epidemiological research. 

The document discussed the relationship between alcohol consumption on cancer development in different body parts. During the time, they concluded that those which had no association with alcohol were cancers of the urinary bladder, kidney, ovary, lymphatic and haematopoietic systems, and the prostate. There were no sufficient studies on the cancer of the skin, vulva, testis, brain, thyroid, corpus and cervix uteri, and soft tissues. 

Cancer development in some parts of the body had inconsistent results. While there were cohort and case-control studies that showed significant associations with alcohol consumption, other studies showed non-significant results. These include cancers of the stomach, large bowels, pancreas, and lung.

The cancers that had a well-established conclusion for their positive correlation with alcohol consumption were the following:

  • Cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx: 5 out of 6 cohort studies showed a significantly increased relative risk by two to five times. Furthermore, epidemiological studies conclude that alcohol is causally related to this cancer.
  • Cancer of the esophagus: 11 out of 13 case-control studies showed significant increases in relative risks depending on the level of alcohol consumption. Similarly, epidemiological studies conclude that alcohol is causally related to this cancer.
  • Cancer of the liver: 2 of 4 cohort studies and 6 of 10 case-control studies showed a significant increase in relative risk. Researchers observed a higher risk among alcohol and tobacco consumers. 
  • Cancer of the breast: 4 of 4 large studies observe a significant positive association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. As of the date of publication of the document, scientists see no causal relationship. 

Findings From Recent Studies

The results discussed above show that the positive correlation between certain cancers and alcohol is already well-established. Recent studies still support these already established findings while adding more probable and specific types of cancer related to alcohol consumption. According to a 2018 report by the World Cancer Research Fund, here are the updates regarding risks from alcohol consumption:

  • Mouth, pharynx, larynx, and liver cancer still have a convincingly increased risk.
  • Specifically, squamous cell carcinoma in esophageal cancer and postmenopausal breast cancer have a convincingly increased risk.
  • Premenopausal breast cancer only has a probable increase in risk.
  • Colorectal cancer now has a convincingly increased risk.
  • Lung and pancreas cancer still have limited conclusions for increased risk.
  • Stomach cancer now has a probable increased risk.

In reading all these documents, you will see that some of the specific studies mention levels of alcohol consumption. This pertains to the amount of alcohol associated with the cancer risk. This makes us wonder: “how much alcohol is bad for our health?”

How Moderate Is “Moderate Drinking”?

Intuitively, the more alcohol you consume, the higher your cancer risk. This leads us to look for the amount of alcohol considered safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that moderate drinking involves the consumption of 14.0 grams of pure alcohol or 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol. 

If we were to base moderate drinking on studies, scientists have yet to determine the general threshold for actual safe drinking. Different types of cancer react distinctly depending on the amount of alcohol. Additionally, if we account for alcohol-related cancers, there will always be a case, even for the lowest amount.

In this global research published in 2021, scientists computed an estimate for alcohol-attributable cancers. As expected, the amount of alcohol consumed positively correlates to the amount of alcohol-attributed cancer. Their calculations also showed that even moderate drinking (< 20g of alcohol per day) contributed to 13.9% of cancer cases. In addition, drinking 10g of alcohol per day still contributed to the cancer cases of around half of the moderate drinkers. 

An Attempt to Distort Scientific Findings

Based on the findings above, we can see that the risk was observable 30 years ago. The latest studies even support these results. However, there is now circulating misunderstandings implying alcohol consumption and cancer risks are somehow unrelated or even beneficial to each other. In some way, we can attribute this circulation of information to the alcohol industry’s product marketing.

A 2017 qualitative study on the corporate influences of the alcohol industry on public health shows this attempt to disrupt scientific findings. In the study, they noted that there are three ways that the industry does this. These three are the following:

  1. Denial or omission: disputing research with links to cancer or selectively omitting the relationship between alcohol and cancer. 
  2. Distortion: mentioning the risk of cancer, yet misrepresenting the significance of the risk. This includes claims of positive effects of alcohol on cancer.
  3. Distraction: making the other factors for cancer appear to have a bigger impact than alcohol. This includes emphasizing uncommon cancer types to claim that it only happens in these rare cases.

The study concludes that the industry seems to be engaging in a campaign to misrepresent clear evidence from peer-reviewed studies. As this type of misinformation becomes more common in the current digital age, we must stay informed by choosing our references in our readings. We must always try to check the references of claims stemming from marketing strategies.

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