Alcohol and cancer: Study supporting teetotalism raises questions

February 19, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

The medical community universally agrees that excessive alcohol consumption is detrimental to your health, but the effects of moderate consumption (generally defined as up to two drinks a day for men and one a day for women) is a little fuzzier. Some research has indicated that low to moderate consumption raises cancer risk, even as other studies have suggested that moderate consumption, particularly red wine, may reduce that risk (while providing potential benefits against heart disease and diabetes.)

A drink a day may not be OK if you are looking to lower your cancer risk, according to new research (Photo credit: George Doyle/Thinkstock) New study suggests a drink a day may not be OK, but there are caveats to the research (Photo credit: George Doyle/Thinkstock)

In the long-running “To drink or not to drink?” debate, the latest evidence is urging the public to do the latter. Research published ahead of print in the American Journal of Public Health on Feb. 14 shows that alcohol consumption resulted in approximately 20,000 – or more than 3 percent of – U.S. cancer deaths in 2009.

Furthermore, the study also attributed a third of those deaths to low or moderate levels of alcohol consumption and concluded that alcohol-linked cancers resulted in 18 potential years of life loss for each death it caused.

Such a paper like this is bound to catch readers' attention, but take care before reading too much into this one article.

The paper used a technique that combined all alcohol consumption into one group and then concluded that anyone who drinks any alcohol is at increased risk of dying from cancer. That’s far too simplistic.

Many studies show that what matters is how much someone drinks. What’s really needed is better information about the trade-offs between those risks and benefits for occasional drinkers vs. moderate drinkers vs. heavy drinkers.

Some experts even said the new study downplayed alcohol’s beneficial effects.

Eric Rimm, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, cited research showing that nondrinkers have a 50 percent higher risk of heart attack compared those who do drink. “I don’t think [those findings] can be pooh-poohed,” Rimm told NBC News.

The authors of the new study acknowledged there were limitations to their research – such as the fact it didn't  differentiate between types of alcoholic beverages – but they ultimately concluded that “alcohol use should be lowered or avoided to reduce cancer risk,” especially among heavy drinkers.

In the meantime, the American Cancer Society and American Institute for Cancer Research said further studies on the alcohol-cancer relationship are needed. They continue to recommend no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

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