Alcohol a ‘significant burden of cancer’ in Europe

Alcohol is an attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries.

A study – published on – reveals that almost one in ten (9.6%) cancers in men and three in ten (3%) cancers in women in Western Europe is caused by former and current alcohol consumption.

It focuses on France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Greece, Germany and Denmark.

The authors, led by Madlen Schütze at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbruecke, argue that a substantial proportion (40 to 98%) of the alcohol-attributable cancers occurred in individuals who drank more than the recommended guidelines on upper limits of two standard drinks a day in men and one standard drink a day in women.

(A standard drink contains about 12g alcohol and is equivalent to 125ml glass of wine or a half pint of beer).

These results are based on risk estimates from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) Study and representative alcohol consumption data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the EPIC Study 363,988 men and women, mostly aged between 35 and 70 years at the time of recruitment were followed for cancer since the mid 1990s.

The participants completed a detailed questionnaire on diet and lifestyle at entry into the study.

Alcohol consumption was measured by specific questions on the amount, frequency and type of beverage that was consumed at present and in the past.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO, there is a causal link between alcohol consumption and cancers of the liver, female breast, colorectum, and upper digestive tract.

However, data had not been available on the number of cancer cases linked to total alcohol consumption or the proportion of cases caused by alcohol consumption beyond the recommended upper limit.

The study calculated that in 2008, current and former alcohol consumption by men was responsible for about 57,600 cases of cancer of the upper digestive tract, colorectum, and liver in Denmark, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Great Britain.

Over half of these cases (33,000) were caused by drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day.

Alcohol consumption by women in the eight countries caused about 21,500 cases of upper digestive tract, liver, colorectum, and breast cancer, of which over 80% (17,400) was due to consumption of more than one drink of beer, wine, or spirits per day.

‘Our data show that many cancer cases could have been avoided if alcohol consumption is limited to two alcoholic drinks per day in men and one alcoholic drink per day in women, which are the recommendations of many health organisations,’ says Madlen Schütze, first author of the study and epidemiologist at German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbruecke.

‘And even more cancer cases would be prevented if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol at all.’

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