Scientists have known that alcohol promotes cancer for several decades. The World Health Organization first classified alcohol consumption as a carcinogen in 1987. Experts say that all types of alcoholic beverages can increase the risk of cancer because they all contain ethanol, which can cause DNA damage, oxidative stress and cell proliferation. Ethanol is metabolized by the body into another carcinogen, acetaldehyde, and it may influence breast cancer risk by increasing estrogen levels.
But surveys continue to show that most people ignore the risks. When the American Institute for Cancer Research surveyed Americans two years ago to gauge their awareness of different cancer risk factors, the results were striking: less than half were aware of the alcohol-cancer link.
Experts say one of the reasons for the lack of awareness is the popular idea that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, is good for heart health, which has drowned out public health messages about the impact of alcohol on cancer risk. But while moderate alcohol consumption has long had a health halo, recent studies suggest it may not be beneficial at all. The American Heart Association states that “no research has established a causal link between alcohol consumption and better heart health,” and that people who drink red wine may have higher rates of heart disease lower for other reasons, such as healthier lifestyles, better diets or higher socioeconomic status.
Other analyzes have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may appear beneficial in large population-based studies, because the “non-drinkers” used for comparison purposes often include people who do not drink because they have serious health problems or because they are former heavy drinkers. When studies take these factors into account, the apparent cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption vanish.
For this reason, the federal government’s dietary guidelines for Americans, which once encouraged moderate alcohol consumption for heart health, no longer make this claim. A panel of scientists who helped craft the most recent edition of the guidelines have called on the government to lower the recommended daily limit on alcohol consumption to just one drink a day for men and women, citing evidence that higher levels of alcohol consumption increase risk. of early death.
But the alcohol industry lobbied hard against the change, and the latest guidelines, released in December, did not include the lowered drink recommendation. The guidelines, however, included strong language on alcohol and cancer for the first time, warning that even moderate drinking can “increase the overall risk of death from various causes, such as several types of cancer and certain forms of disease. cardiovascular”.
“For some types of cancer,” the new guidelines state, “the risk increases even at low levels of alcohol consumption (less than one drink per day). Caution is therefore advised.”