Drinking alcohol is a cause of cancer.
There is now convincing evidence that alcohol can lead to cancers of the:
- bowel (in men)
There is also probable evidence that alcohol can lead to cancers of the:
- bowel (in women)
It is estimated that 3,208 cases of cancer (or 2.8% of all cancers) were due to alcohol use in 2010 in Australia.
When it comes to cancer risk, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Even small amounts of alcohol increase your risk of cancer. The more you drink and the more often you drink, the greater your risk.
It is not just heavy drinking that increases cancer risk. Even drinking small amounts increases the chance of developing cancer.
The world-leading cancer agency - the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) - has classified alcoholic drinks and the chemical present in these drinks (ethanol) as a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the same classification as tobacco.
So what should I do?
To reduce your cancer risk, we recommend you:
- limit how much alcohol you drink
- or better still, avoid drinking alcohol altogether.
If you choose to drink, we recommended you drink within National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines, which advise:
- no more than 2 standard drinks a day (for men and women).
- avoid binge drinking (drinking more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion)
- aim to have at least two alcohol-free days every week.
Find out more about the NHMRC guidelines for alcohol consumption.
What is a standard drink?
A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol. All bottles, cans and casks of alcohol sold in Australia are required to state on the label the approximate number of standard drinks they contain. You can use this information to estimate how much alcohol you are drinking.
It is important to know that different types of alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of alcohol.
One standard alcoholic drink is equal to:
- One 375ml can or stubbie of mid-strength beer
- 100ml of wine (13.5% alcohol)
- 30ml nip of spirits
- One 250ml can of full strength pre-mix spirits (5% alcohol)
Some things make it difficult to keep track of how many standard drinks you have actually had. Glass sizes vary, people share drinks, glasses may be topped up by other people, or you may not know how much alcohol is in the drink you are having (for example mixed drinks such as cocktails or punch). Pouring your own drinks and avoiding ‘rounds' make it easier to keep track of how much you drink.
Tips to reduce alcohol use
We recommend that people avoid drinking alcohol. But if you choose to drink, we support drinking only within the NHMRC guidelines for alcohol consumption.
The NHMRC has a list of tips to help you keep your drinking within safe limits. These include:
- Setting limits for yourself and sticking to them
- Starting with non-alcoholic drinks and alternating with alcoholic drinks
- Drinking slowly
- Trying drinks with a lower alcohol content
- Eating before or while you are drinking
- If you participate in rounds of drinks, trying to include some non-alcohol drinks.
The Australian Drug Foundation also has some ideas to help you reduce your alcohol here.
Other negative effects of alcohol
Drinking alcohol has a number of negative effects other than increasing cancer risk. Other health effects from risky alcohol drinking include damage to the liver, heart and brain, high blood pressure and stroke, and risks to unborn babies. Drinking alcohol at a young age can affect brain development and lead to alcohol-related problems in later life.
Drinking alcohol is also associated with injury, violence, crime and motor vehicle accidents.
But isn't alcohol good for my heart?
Previously, researchers believed that red wine had health benefits for heart disease. It now seems that the research on alcohol and heart disease overestimated the benefits. The World Health Organization and the Heart Foundation now say that there is no merit in promoting alcohol consumption as a preventive strategy.
There are other more effective ways to decrease your risk of heart disease, such as being physically active, having a healthy body weight, following a healthy diet and quitting smoking.
Does drinking matter if I smoke?
The combined effects of smoking and drinking alcohol are much greater than the individual risks from either smoking or drinking alcohol alone. This is because alcohol makes it easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco.
Those who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes have a much higher chance of getting head and neck cancers (cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and oesophagus). In fact, the combination of drinking and smoking is thought to be responsible for more than 75% of cancers of the head and neck.
Can alcohol lead to weight gain?
Just like any food or drink you consume (except water), alcoholic drinks contain energy (kilojoules, kJ). In fact, alcohol contains few nutrients but is very energy dense. The energy found in alcohol is often called ‘empty kilojoules'. In Australia, one standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, which gives you 290kJ of energy. If mixed with other sugary drinks (mixers), it contains even more energy.
When alcohol is added to your diet it can easily contribute to weight gain. Being overweight is a risk factor for some types of cancer including oesophagus, pancreas, bowel, breast (after menopause), kidney and endometrium (lining of the uterus). So drinking alcohol increases cancer risk, and gaining weight can add to this cancer risk.
There is no safe level of alcohol when it comes to cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, drink no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and have alcohol-free days.
Where to go for more information
A number of organisations are working to educate the community about the short term and long term effects of alcohol. To find out more about some of the different programs available in Western Australia and throughout the rest of the country choose from the links below:
Western Australian Campaigns
The Alcohol. Think Again Campaign aims to decrease alcohol-related harm by reducing short-term and long-term harmful drinking. The campaign is an initiative of the Government of WA's Drug and Alcohol Office (DAO).
Western Australian organisations
- The Government of WA's Drug and Alcohol Office (DAO) is the government agency responsible for drug and alcohol strategies and services in Western Australia. DAO provides or contracts a statewide network of treatment services, a range of prevention programs, professional education and training and research activities.
National organisations, websites and documents
- The Australian Government's website on alcohol provides information about alcohol-related health issues and Australian Government policy including Australia's National Alcohol Strategy, the Australian Alcohol Guidelines, treatment guidelines, alcohol resources and publications, community initiatives and secondary supply of alcohol.
- The Australian Government's Department of Veterans' Affairs website 'The Right Mix' provides interactive tools to help people calculate their alcohol intake, assess their drinking, and recognise a standard drink. It is important to note that the website is aimed at encouraging 'low risk' drinking, however regularly drinking alcohol at 'low risk' levels can increase cancer risk.
- The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)'s Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol aim to help Australians make informed choices about alcohol and how much risk they want to take with their health. The guidelines help health agencies guide the community in reducing the health risks caused by alcohol.
- The Heart Foundation aims to save lives and improve health through funding cardiovascular research, providing guidelines for health professionals, informing the public and assisting people with cardiovascular disease.
- The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that provides drug and alcohol information, undertakes community development work through its Good Sports Alcohol Accreditation Program and researches issues relating to young people and alcohol through its Centre for Youth Drug Studies. The ADF provides leadership and support to those who wish to advocate for better public health policy and strategies through its Community Alcohol Action Network.
- Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research, 2007.
- Heart Foundation Position Statement on Antioxidants in food, drinks and supplements for cardiovascular health, 2010.