Does a daily pint increase cancer risk?

Drinking a pint of beer, a large glass of wine or a couple of measures of spirits a day increases the risk of liver and bowel cancer by a fifth, according to media reports.

Research by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has shown that two units of alcohol a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent and the risk of liver cancer by 20 per cent.

In the UK, liver cancer kills about 3,000 people a year and more than 36,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year.

Alcoholic drinks are thought to be a cause of bowel cancer

What is the research?
In 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund produced an expert report looking at the effect on cancer incidence of food, drink and physical activity. The report looked at all available research on cancer prevention.

Over the course of six years, researchers from nine universities reviewed thousands of studies and made a series of recommendations, including a limit on alcohol consumption.

An initial 500,000 studies were screened down to 7,000 deemed to meet the standards required for inclusion in the report.

The report found that there was convincing evidence that alcoholic drinks were a cause of bowel cancer and probably a cause of liver cancer.

Dr Rachel Thompson, science programme manager for the WCRF, has since reviewed the evidence in the report.

She converted the relative risks, which are presented in the report in units 'per 10g per day', into more meaningful terms.

Dr Thompson calculated that having one pint of beer a day, or two smaller drinks containing more than 10g of alcohol each, increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent and the risk of liver cancer by 20 per cent.

What do the researchers say?
Dr Thompson said: 'If you are drinking a pint of lager everyday then this might not seem like a lot, but the science shows you are increasing your risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent and your risk of liver cancer by 20 per cent.'

However, research suggests that few people understand the risks. In Britain, 64 per cent of people are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer, she said.

'For cancer prevention, WCRF recommends not drinking alcohol at all,' Dr Thompson said. 'However, modest amounts of alcohol may have a protective effect for heart disease but the benefits only outweigh the risk in those particularly at risk of heart disease, such as men aged over 40 and postmenopausal women.'

The WCRF recommends that if people do drink then they should limit it to two drinks a day for a man or one for a woman, she added.

What do other researchers say?
Ed Yong, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that the WCRF analysis is consistent with other research into links between alcohol intake and cancer risk. 'The original WCRF report was very comprehensive,' he said.

'It fits with established evidence that drinking more than three units of alcohol a day can significantly increase the chance of developing cancer - particularly in the mouth, oesophagus, breast, bowel and larynx.'

However, recognition of the link between alcohol intake and cancer risk is still low among the public, he pointed out.

'We know there is still a lack of awareness of this link,' he said. 'Our advice is the more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your cancer risk.'

tom.moberly@haymarket.com

Informing Patients

  • Alcohol can increase cancer risk.
  • Even small amounts of alcohol can make a significant difference.
  • For cancer prevention, alcohol consumption should be limited to two drinks a day for a man or one for a woman.

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