Alcohol linked to more than 740,000 new cases of cancer in 2020

LYON, France — Alcohol consumption has a lot of links to human health, some good and some bad. Now, a new study reveals a concerning connection to cancer cases during the pandemic last year. Researchers estimate that nearly 750,000 people worldwide were diagnosed with a form of cancer that has ties to how much they drink.

Overall, study authors say about four percent of all new cancers discovered in 2020 are related to drinking alcohol. Of these cases, the vast majority of alcohol-related cancers are among men (77%) — accounting for over 568,000 cases. The most prominent alcohol-related cancers, according to the study, include cancers in the esophagus, liver, and breast.

“We urgently need to raise awareness about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk among policy makers and the general public. Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labelling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer,” says researcher Harriet Rumgay of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in France in a media release.

“Tax and pricing policies that have led to decreased alcohol intake in Europe, including increased excise taxes and minimum unit pricing, could also be implemented in other world regions. Local context is essential for successful policy around alcohol consumption and will be key to reducing cancer cases linked to drinking.”

What does alcohol have to do with cancer?

The team explains that drinking causes DNA damage by increasing the production of harmful chemicals in the body. This in turn impact hormone production and leads to the development of certain cancers. Alcohol can also worsen the affect of using other cancer-causing substances, like tobacco.

Among the areas of the body most at risk from alcohol are the esophagus, liver, breasts, colon, mouth, and throat.

Study authors looked at alcohol consumption totals from previous years to come up with an estimate for 2020. According to their findings, there were approximately 6.3 million cases of cancer diagnosed last year. However, researchers admit this number may be even higher when you factor in health care disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the behavioral impact COVID had on people around the globe — including an uptick in binge drinking cases.

Heavy drinking puts people most at risk

Researchers started their study by looking at alcohol intake levels by country in 2010. They say that 10 years provides scientists with a reasonable amount of time for alcohol consumption to lead to cancer among drinkers. They then combined the data with new estimates for cancer cases in 2020; looking only at cancers with a strong link to alcohol use. The team also examined overall cancer estimates, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer.

Results were broken down into three main categories: moderate drinking levels (less than two drinks per day), risky drinking (between two and six drinks), and heavy drinking (over six alcoholic beverages a day).

People who fall into the risky (39%) and heavy drinking categories (47%) make up the bulk of new alcohol-related cancer cases in 2020. Despite binge levels of drinking being the most harmful to human health, researchers still find 14 percent of alcohol-related cancers develop among moderate drinkers. That’s about 103,000 people.

Alcohol becoming a bigger problem in Asia

As for where alcohol is becoming a serious cancer risk, the study finds Eastern Asia and Central and Eastern Europe are seeing the greatest number of drinking-related cancer diagnoses. Specifically, the team finds countries like Mongolia (10%), China (6%), India (5%), and France (5%) have the highest rates of cancer with a link to drinking.

Nations such as the United States (3%), the United Kingdom (4%), and Brazil (4%) fall into the average for these new estimates. At the opposite end of the spectrum, countries in northern Africa and western Asia are seeing the least number of cancers related to alcohol.

“Trends suggest that although there is a decrease in alcohol consumption per person in many European countries, alcohol use is on the rise in Asian countries such as China and India, and in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, there is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of drinking in some countries. Our study highlights the contribution of even relatively low levels of drinking to rates of cancer, which is concerning, but also suggests that small changes to public drinking behavior could positively impact future cancer rates,” Rumgay explains.

Researchers published their findings in The Lancet Oncology.