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Landmark study links long-term alcohol consumption with the risk of specific cancer types

Thursday 3 December, 2015

Research by Cancer Council Victoria has found that people who consume a high amount of alcohol over their lifetime could be up to seven times more likely to develop cancer.

The research by Cancer Council Victoria and the University of Melbourne reviewed existing studies to measure the effect that long-term alcohol consumption has on the risk of breast, head and neck and bowel cancers.

Lead researcher Dr Harindra Jayesakara said the analysis confirmed that people who consume a high intake of alcohol over a lifetime could be two to seven-times more likely to develop certain types of cancer.

"Long term, chronic use of alcohol contributes to 3000 cases of cancer in Australia every year," he said.

"This study provides further evidence that the effects of alcohol are dose-dependent; meaning the more you drink the greater the risk you will develop cancer."

Through comparing the instances of cancer with varying levels of alcohol consumption, the research found that long-term drinking increases cancer risk by up to:

  • seven times for cancer of the oesophagus
  • five times for cancer of the mouth and throat 
  • two times for cancer of the larynx
  • 1.5 times for bowel cancer
  • 1.3 times for breast cancer.*

Professor Dallas English, co-author of the research published in the Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism, said that most of the existing research in the field looked at current, not long term drinking.

"Fewer studies have measured the links between lifetime consumption and cancer and, until now, this research has not been brought together," he said.

"By drawing this research together, we're able to gain a greater understanding about the role that alcohol plays in causing cancer.

"This research contributes to the growing body of evidence that shows consuming alcohol can cause cancer, and yet just 10 per cent of the Victorian population realise that people can reduce their risk by limiting their drinking."**

Cancer Council Victoria recommends that individuals limit their intake of alcohol to reduce their cancer risk.

Those who choose to drink alcohol should consume no more than two standard drinks a day and avoid binge drinking.

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*When comparing the highest category of consumption with the lowest.

**Niven P, Scully M and Morely B, Changes in perceptions of body weight, physical activity and dietary factors in relation to cancer risk in the population: updated findings, Cancer Issues Population Survey, Cancer Council Victoria, February 2013