Alcohol and cancer risk

Drinking alcohol is a cause of 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 means there is no doubt that it causes cancer.

There is strong and convincing evidence that alcohol can lead to seven types of cancer.

Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer infographic

It is estimated that 3,500 cases of cancer are due to alcohol use in Australia each year. In WA in 2015, 193 people died from alcohol-related cancer.

When it comes to cancer risk, there is no safe level of drinking. It's not just heavy drinking that increases your cancer risk. Even drinking small amounts increases the chance of developing cancer. The more you drink, and the more often you drink, the greater your risk.

Impact of drinking alcohol and smoking

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.

The impact of alcohol on weight

Just like any food or drink (except water), alcoholic drinks contain energy (kilojoules, kJ). In fact, alcohol contains few nutrients but is very energy dense.

  • 1 gram of alcohol = 29kJ of energy; whereas
  • 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate = 17kJ of energy

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. For example, a can of bourbon and coke provides about 690kJ of energy.

Another downside of alcohol is that it is easy to consume much more than a standard drink. The drinks served in restaurants, pubs and at home are often much larger than one standard drink. For example, a small glass of wine in a restaurant is about 150mL, which is one and a half standard drinks.

When alcohol is added to your diet it can easily contribute to weight gain. Being overweight is a risk factor for many types of cancer including bowel, breast (after menopause), kidney and liver. 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 to lower your risk of long-term harms.

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