The study is the first update on cancer-related deaths in several decades, and researchers found that alcohol accounted for about 3.5 percent of the more than 577,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year, or about 19,500 cases.
Those who consumed three or more drinks a day accounted for most of the deaths from seven kinds of cancer. However, drinking just 1.5 drinks or less per day was associated with up to 35 percent of those cancer deaths, suggesting that any alcohol use carries some risk.
“For non-drinkers, it’s another reason to feel happy they don’t drink,” said the study’s director, Dr. Timothy Naimi, an associate professor at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. “For drinkers, it shows that when it comes to cancer, the less you drink, the better.”
The researchers looked at mortality data from two national surveys conducted in 2009 – and using a mathematical formula, determined which of the cancer deaths were alcohol-related.
Around 3.2 to 3.7% of all cancer deaths in 2009 were attributed to alcohol, with oral cancers, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancers the top killers in men, and breast cancer the top killer in women.
About 15% of all breast cancer deaths were attributable to alcohol consumption, according to the study.
Still, researchers say, the link between alcohol consumption and cancer death remains largely unknown.
“I just don’t think there’s enough attention across the board, from physicians or public health,” said Dr. David Nelson, a study co-author and a director of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute. “It’s missing in plain sight.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 65 percent of adults are either regular or occasional drinkers, which may explain the lack of attention given to the link between alcohol and cancer.
“It’s hard to talk about something that a lot of people are pretty familiar with,” Nelson said. “It can be uncomfortable.”
Moreover, other studies on the effect of alcohol on health have actually shown some positive benefits, such as decreasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease, as well as cutting cholesterol. While such studies have emphasized “drinking in moderation”, the message sent is that moderate drinking can improve one’s health in certain aspects.
“We love hearing about studies that say that wine and chocolate and sex are good for us,” said Naimi. “And we’ve always been in search of snake oil.”
Meanwhile, Naimi said that this latest study focuses solely on alcohol and cancer deaths without venturing into any debate over the possible benefits of moderate drinking.
“Anything that’s a leading cause of death is not a good preventive agent,” Naimi added.