Think Before You Drink: Alcohol and Cancer Deaths

A new BU study says alcohol is linked to cancer deaths.

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Despite what you may have heard about red wine being good for your health, new research from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and the School of Public Health have sobering news for drinkers: Alcohol is a factor in roughly 20,000 cancer deaths annually, about 3.5 percent of all cancer fatalities.

The study, which will be published in the April 2013 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, says that alcohol is technically classified as a carcinogen, and that research shows that drinking is tied closely to deaths from cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver. What may you surprise you, though, is that the report also says there is evidence of a connection between alcohol consumption and colon, rectum, and female breast cancer deaths. In fact, breast cancer had the most alcohol-linked deaths for women, with 15 percent of annual breast cancer deaths (about 6,000) having a tie to alcohol. Alcohol-related mouth, esophagus, and throat cancer deaths in men occurred at about the same frequency, the study says.

Perhaps the scariest part of the research is by how much alcohol can shorten lives, and how little liquor is needed to do so. The report says:

The researchers also found that each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost. In addition, although higher levels of alcohol consumption led to a higher cancer risk, average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day or less accounted for 30 percent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

Dr. Timothy Naimi, a doctor in the department of medicine at BUSM, cautions people against the dangers of drinking in the release:

The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians,” said Naimi, who served as the paper’s senior author. “Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”

The findings of BUSM’s study are jarring, to be sure, but we have to say there’s room for skepticism. With studies linking something new to cancer and cancer deaths seemingly all the time, we may not put down our happy hour cocktail just yet.