Alcohol causes more than 3,200 cancer cases in Australia each year. In a recently released Alcohol and cancer evidence brief, the Cancer Institute NSW warns, 'From a cancer prevention perspective, no amount of alcohol consumption is safe.'
How many cases of cancer are linked to alcohol consumption?
Strong evidence now links alcohol consumption to increased risk of at least eight types of cancer: mouth, throat (pharynx, larynx and oesophagus), breast, stomach, liver and bowel. Around the world, 4% of all cancer cases in 2020 were associated with alcohol consumption. Of those 741,300 cases, more than three quarters were men, while women accounted for just under one quarter of cases.
More than 3,200 cancer cases could be prevented each year in Australia if people limited their alcohol consumption. For people who choose to drink, Australian Guidelines recommend drinking no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.
While it is unknown exactly how alcohol causes cancer, the chemical compound ethanol in alcohol is recognised as a carcinogen.
The more alcohol a person consumes, the greater their risk of developing a related cancer. A recent study of NSW adults aged 45 years and over found that the risk increases by 10% with every seven standard drinks consumed per week. Drinking more than that raised liver cancer risk by 48%, bowel cancer risk by 14%, and breast cancer risk by 15%. The rate of consumption was also linked to an increased risk of breast cancer – women who drink 14 or more standard drinks on 1 to 3 days per week have an increased risk compared to those who consume the same amount over 4 to 7 days per week.
Who is most at risk?
Some groups are at greater risk for alcohol-related cancers:
- Younger adults aged 18 to 24 are more likely to drink more than four standard drinks on one day and more than 11 standard drinks in a month, putting them at high risk of alcohol-related harm and lifetime risk of dying from an alcohol-related disease.
- People in their 50s and 60s are more likely to drink in quantities that exceed recommendations. People are more likely to drink daily as they age; those in their 70s are the most likely to drink daily.
- Although Aboriginal Australians are more likely to refrain from consuming alcohol than non-Aboriginal Australians, those who do drink are more likely to drink at risky levels and experience alcohol-related conditions, including cancer.
- People living in regional and remote areas have higher estimated daily consumption of alcohol and people in remote areas are more likely to be risky drinkers, compared to those living in capital cities.
- Although risky drinking has declined among people who identify as homosexual or bisexual, these groups are still 1.5 times more likely to exceed the guidelines compared to people who identify as heterosexual.
How much is safe to drink?
Although any amount of alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cancer, the National Health and Medical Research Council's Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol recommend:
- Healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol.
- To reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health, children and people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.
- To prevent harm from alcohol to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.
- For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest for their baby.
What can people do?
Set yourself a limit and count your drinks, with no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four in a day. The free Drink Meter app can help with keeping track.
Commit to having a few alcohol-free days each week, which can also result in benefits like better sleep, increased energy and a balanced mood.
Swap to low- or no-alcohol alternatives, like non-alcoholic spirits, beers, wines and ciders, mocktails, kombucha, flavoured soda water or sparkling juice.
Switch up your routine. At first, it may also help to avoid events where there could be social pressure to drink alcohol. Consider swapping these for other activities with friends where alcohol isn't a factor. If you are in situations where there might be social pressure, have a plan for how you'll respond.
Create a support network, either by asking friends or family or finding an online community. Just as social pressure can make it harder to reduce alcohol intake, social support can help.
Help reducing alcohol intake
There are many services, including free or low-cost options, to help people reduce their alcohol consumption.
Drinks Meter is a free, user-friendly app for your phone or tablet that provides confidential, personalised feedback about your alcohol use based on advice from doctors and the Australian guidelines to reduce health related risks from alcohol.
The Get Healthy Service Alcohol Reduction Program is a free telephone-based coaching service designed to support you to make healthy lifestyle changes and reduce your alcohol consumption, available at 1300 806 258, Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm.
Your Service Hub is an online directory with alcohol support services across New South Wales.
For free and confidential advice 24/7 call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. Counsellors are available to provide information, referrals, crisis counselling and support. Or start a web chat with an ADIS counsellor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. ADIS can also provide up-to-date information about service availability in your area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Important note: For some people, suddenly stopping drinking can make them feel physically and emotionally unwell. If you feel sick, sweaty or cannot sleep when trying to cut down on your drinking, you may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms and should see your doctor. If in doubt, don't stop drinking but seek medical advice.