The rise of cancer worldwide is a major obstacle to human development and well-being… immediate action is needed to confront this human disaster, which touches every community worldwide, without exception…

There is now scientific proof that using alcohol causes cancer. Yes, not just contributes but causes.  

There are numerous studies carried out in different parts of the world that show a clear relationship between consuming alcohol and cancers of the throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, liver, prostate and breast. While scientists have known this for a while, this knowledge is not yet widely available among the public.

In February, during the World Cancer Day, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) launched the World Cancer Report 2014. According to the report, cancer is already the world’s leading cause of death accounting for an estimated 8.2 million deaths globally in 2012. This figure is projected to rise to 25 million in 20 years, a 70% increase.

The report tells us that even the richest countries will struggle to cope with the resulting costs of treatment and care for patients. Meanwhile lower income countries, where numbers are expected to be highest, are ill-equipped for the burden to come. Already, 70% of new cancer cases are occurring in South America, Africa and Asia.

It is therefore obvious that the battle against cancer must focus on prevention to stem this impending disaster, a fact to which the report attests. This is why alcohol must be acknowledged and addressed as one of the causes of cancer.

This would allow for people to make more informed lifestyle choices at the individual level. And perhaps more importantly, for policy makers to take appropriate actions to address the environment we live in to support those individual choices and create a society, at population level, that is conducive to health, not detrimental.

How exactly then, does alcohol cause cancer?

To put it in simple terms, the first process in the breakdown of alcohol in the body produces a toxin called acetaldehyde. This toxin is then in the next stage broken down into the less harmful acetic acid, which is essentially vinegar.  Of these metabolites our culprit is acetaldehyde, a chemical that is not only poisonous but also highly carcinogenic.

Most people are familiar with hangovers but most people don’t know that acetaldehyde is what causes them. Since the liver can only break down small amounts of alcohol at a time, acetaldehyde accumulates in the body with increased use of alcohol. This is why headaches, vomiting, stomach irritation and other symptoms associated with alcohol use occur, due to the toxic effect of acetaldehyde on the body.
Hangovers aside, acetaldehyde has been shown to produce cancerous mutations when incubated with tissue culture cells or fed to the E-coli bacteria that are normally found in the gut.

According to Jeff Herten M.D. in his book An Uncommon Drunk: Revelations of a High-Functioning Alcoholic, bacteria in the mouth stomach and throughout the gastrointestinal tract are capable of producing acetaldehyde from alcohol. This then results in the exposure of the cells throughout the tract to acetaldehyde which is how alcohol causes mouth, throat and esophageal cancer.

What if one consumes only a little? Is there a safe amount of alcohol to use?

There are studies that associate moderate alcohol intake with certain health benefits. However, where cancer is concerned, studies have shown that even light to moderate alcohol intake elevates the risk of some cancers, where light intake is no more than one drink (12.5g ethanol per day).

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes:

… Cancer risk increases considerably at high consumption levels but there is no safe level at which there is no cancer risk…”

What’s worse is that since bacteria in the mouth breakdown alcohol to acetaldehyde, one need not even swallow the alcohol to be exposed.

In 2011, researchers from the University of Helsinki Faculty of Medicine, Research Unit on Acetaldehyde and Cancer released some startling findings. According to their study published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal, carcinogenic concentrations of acetaldehyde are produced from ethanol in the oral cavity instantly after a small sip of strong alcoholic beverage, and the exposure continues for at least 10 min.

This is partly why some mouthwash brands no longer contain alcohol and include an alcohol-free label, to distinguish themselves from those brands that do contain alcohol and that expose their customers to carcinogens.

While on the subject of labeling, in light of the growing knowledge of specific harms caused by alcohol, it is perhaps time to revisit the discussion on warning labels on alcoholic products.

Tobacco control studies have shown that warning labels particularly graphic ones are effective in educating smokers on the health risks that they expose themselves to, in helping young people to abstain and, in promoting and supporting decisions to quit. Warning labels on alcoholic beverages based on evidence from research will likely have similar results in alcohol control and as a result contribute to taming the cancer scourge.

The WHO Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol recommends 10 areas for national action out of which three are termed as the best buys. This is because they have significant public health impact, and are highly cost-effective, inexpensive and fairly easy to implement.

These are:

#3BestBuys to prevent and reduce alcohol harm

#3BestBuys to prevent and reduce alcohol harm

  1. Tax increases i.e. measures to increasing price and hence reduce availability of alcohol
  2. Restricting access to retailed alcohol and
  3. Restrictions on alcohol advertising and marketing including the banning on alcohol advertising.

These measures if implemented especially in developing countries where more than 60% of the world’s cancer cases occur have great potential to reduce alcohol harm and as a result provide a low-cost approach to reducing the incidence of cancer and other diseases.

Considering that the global cost of cancer treatment in 2010 was US$ 1.16 trillion and that 70% of all cancer deaths occur in developing countries where 99% of patients die without pain treatment, no efforts should be spared to prevent new cases.

The role of alcohol cannot therefore be ignored anymore and like the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry must be held to account. National policy measures therefore need to make provision for the profit oriented Global Alcohol Industry to cater for the cost of the disaster it is presiding over.

In addition, governments should not allow Big Alcohol to entice consumers, particularly young people through seductive advertising while concealing the serious life-threatening outcomes of using an addictive carcinogenic substance. Finally, it should not be easy for people to access alcohol. Laws restricting underage drinking should be enforced and the places where and the times when alcohol can be obtained be limited to reduce alcohol use at the population level.

As Dr Christopher Wild, Director of the IACR says:

The rise of cancer worldwide is a major obstacle to human development and well-being… immediate action is needed to confront this human disaster, which touches every community worldwide, without exception…”

That’s what we in IOGT call heart-driven action towards life set free.

For further reading:

IACR, World Cancer Report 2014: “Global battle against cancer won’t be won with treatment alone. Effective prevention measures urgently needed to prevent cancer crisis

New York Times: “High Functioning, But Still Alcoholics“, by Jane E. Brody, May 4, 2009