Alcohol: the undiscussed carcinogen?

I’ve changed the title of this post to bring out something that seemed to me striking.  It seems to various agencies devoted to studying, curing and preventing cancer are saying that alcohol is a carcinogen when consumed in amounts that in fact many people do consume it.  Maybe everyone else has gotten this, but it isn’t showing up in, for example, discussions about whether to raise the estimates of the healthy intake of alcohol in the UK.

Of course, there are lots of possibilities here about who is right or wrong, and it would be great if anyone has any insight here.


So here are some facts about recommendations and guidelines regarding the consumption of alcohol. 

  • In the States, the Center for Disease Control recommends at most one drink a day for women and two for men.  More than this is heavy drinking, which has a lot of health risks.
  • The attitude in the UK, which appears to be on the verge of increasing its recommended maximum, is different.  According to the Independent, “The existing advice is based on recommendations from a committee of doctors in 1987 which set the weekly limits of 21 units for men, and 14 units for women. But the review comes as one of the members of the original Royal College of Physicians’ working party on the subject admitted that the figures were “plucked out of the air” in the absence of clear evidence about how much alcohol poses a health risk.”  (My Stress.) 

Now  in fact the difference here from the US is not that great.  2 units of spirits for the UK appear to be about 1.7 ounces, which one unit for the US is 1.5.  Still, the UK is going to increase theirs, it seems.

  • And other countries appear even more permissive.  Again according to the  Independent, “MPs will also look at how UK guidelines compare with those provided in other countries. Italy’s guidelines allow the equivalent of an extra bottle of wine a week compared with the UK’s advice. France, Portugal, New Zealand and Japan allow more than half a bottle extra a week and limits in Spain and Ireland allow almost two glasses more.”

Now, one can certainly get one’s head around all this.  Americans disapprove of drinking, and Europeans and the Japanese do not.  Roughly speaking.

But here’s the reveal.  According to the American Cancer Society, research shows that consuming alcohol is connected to getting cancer.  Limiting alcohol may lessen one’s risk for cancer.  The limits are these:  women one drink and two for men.

OK, that’s just puritannical American, I said to myself.  What will the UK health service say about alsohol and cancer?  Well, here’s what Cancer Research UK says:

There is no doubt that alcohol can cause seven types of cancer.

  • The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your risk of cancer.
  • There is limited risk if you only drink a little – such as one small drink a day for women or two for men.
  • You don’t need to be drunk to increase your risk.
  • Drinking and smoking together are even worse for you.

The consequences of drinking too much alcohol go well beyond the evening’s embarrassing antics or the morning’s hangover. Scientific studies have confirmed that alcohol can also cause cancer.

Tracking down the percentages for one form of cancern, breast cancer, it looks as the the American Cancer Society is prepared to say that drinking 2-5 units of alcohol a day increases one’s risk by a full 6%.   That is, women who drink no more than one drink a day have a 12 percent change of getting breast cancer; more than that and you are at 18%

There is, it seems to me, a shocking disconnect in some of these figures.

18 thoughts on “Alcohol: the undiscussed carcinogen?

  1. Alcohol is poisonous. It is toxic, and the effects people like ro feel are caused by its effect in poisoning your nervous system, as they say, “Intoxication”. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you had better be prepared to deal with the effects of drinking poison on a regular basis. I think it is mostly going to be a guess and a gamble for how much you can drink and not hurt yourself to the point you notice it.

    I don’t know anybody whose life has been improved by alcohol, but I know plenty whose lives have been ruined. I’m not a puritan, just a realist. As a matter of fact the puritans were famous in early America for the vast amounts of alcohol they drank. Prohibitionism in America was a part of the early feminist and suffragist movement, driven by women who were tired of having their families destroyed by the men drinking alcohol.

  2. Not a contradiction per se, as this study looks at other health problems than cancer.

    Women’s different outcomes are partially moderated by habit and it is not clear if the differences are wholly determined by biology or partially by social factors.

    But this isn’t a clear question: there are health benefits to some people from use of alcohol.

  3. @PragmaticRealist Alcohol is not poisonous or toxic. You’re being silly and and ignorant, as well as peddling misinformation. Excessive consumption of most substances (including water) will result in people getting sick and dying, but it doesn’t follow that most substances (including water) are poisonous.In fact, moderate consumption of alcohol (especially red wine) can be reasonably considered to be beneficial to one’s health by any educated individual with half a brain.

  4. We have a policy here, “be nice!”. Anon, your comment is unnecessarily belittling. Please don’t do this again.

  5. Michel X, I too saw that story and was encouraged by the thought that on the old Russian system the amount of alcohol that I consume is negligible (given that beer is my choice tipple) ;-)

  6. IMHO, specifying limits weekly, instead of daily, implies that it is OK to drink one’s weekly allotment in one evening. I much prefer the limits to be expressed in daily amounts.

    I can’t agree that Americans disapprove of drinking. It is an integral part of many men’s coming of age experiences. They often take pride in how much they drink or in how drunk they become. It took tax changes to do away with the 3-Martini Lunch.

  7. Rob, the article you cite looks at alcohol as a NEGATIVE risk factor. Negative risk factors are correlated with better outcomes, not worse.

  8. I don’t think anyone has yet picked up on what seemed to me so striking. The various cancer agencies seem to be saying that alcoholic drinks are carcinogenic. And unlike many carcinogens which various agencies tell us are only present in tiny, tiny amounts that don’t really matter, alcohol is an source of cancer in amounts many people drink daily.

    Tom, I might of course be wrong about saying that Americans disapprove of alcohol, but behavior isn’t necessarily relevant. There are lots of cases where we could count the society of disapproving of something that goes on a fair amount, and that people may even not feel ashamed of. Maybe student cheating is one case. There are often ‘mixed messages” about sexual behavioral in a society.

  9. Anne:

    What you say about alcohol and cancer risk is true.

    I would say that there are so many foods that we now avoid as too fatting, too full of cholesterol, too full of salt, of pesticides, of chemicals, of refined sugar, etc., etc., that maybe some of us have reached our limit about eating and drinking with our health, rather than pleasure, in mind, and hence, we go on drinking slightly more than the recommended limit for alcoholic beverages.

    No, I’m not 22. I’m 65.

  10. There are a number of different kinds of alcohol, most of which are deadly poisons which will make you very sick and kill you in short order. Ethanol, drinking alcohol, is relatively safe for humans to ingest. It effect is to depress the nervous system by interfering with the function of nerves in the brain and thereby producing a “calming” effect. As the fellow said, “My uncle just takes a few drinks to steady his nerves. Sometimes he gets so steady he can’t move.” One of the areas of the brain that gets calmed down is the part that produces the inhibitions to keep you from doing stupid, impulsive things. Sometimes this allows you to do enjoyable, fun things. Other times it allows people to be careless, violent and do great harm.

    So I guess you have to judge for yourself whether the positive health effects of red wine are worth the risk.

  11. I wonder if the positive health benefits of some alcohol are actually due to the properties of the plants from which they’re made, and not the alcohol itself?

    There have been studies saying that the alcohol in mouthwash may cause oral cancer.

  12. @PragmaticRealist

    We aren’t discussing any kind of alcohol other than ethanol here. You could defend your claim that alcohol is poisonous by pointing out that methanol as poisonous, but that would be to derail the topic and wander off on irrelevant tangents. Let’s stick to the topic, shall we?

    Consuming moderate amounts of red wine does not result in almost anyone doing great harm or becoming careless and violent. You seem to be fixated on consumption of large quantities of alcohol, which can have such effects. However, it is quite possible for people to drink alcohol in moderate healthy quantities, and when they do so, they incur no significant risks and benefit themselves in numerous ways.

    Basically, all the evidence suggests that safely and responsibly consuming moderate amounts of alcohol (particularly red wine) is, pretty much, both risk-free and beneficial. Anyone who had assessed the evidence responsibly would know that this is what the evidence points towards. If you judge differently, then you simply aren’t believing in accordance with all the best available evidence points towards.

  13. Tracking down the percentages for one form of cancern, breast cancer, it looks as the the American Cancer Society is prepared to say that drinking 2-5 units of alcohol a day increases one’s risk by a full 6%. That is, women who drink no more than one drink a day have a 12 percent change of getting breast cancer; more than that and you are at 18%

    If I’m understanding you correctly, I think that’s a misunderstanding of the ACS’s statement. If they state that “drinking 2-5 units of alcohol a day increases risk by a full 6%,” they’re claiming a 6% increase over the existing risk. Meaning, if an individual’s current risk of developing breast cancer is 1.00%, or .01, their risk if they drink 2-5 units of alcohol is now 1.06%, or .0106.

    So no, drinking one drink a day doesn’t raise your risk to 12% (0.12) unless your risk was already somewhere over 11% to start with.

  14. J-Bro, what they literally say is that it raises the risk by 50%. So that’s half of roughly 12 or 6.
    In fact, I am not entirely confident of my ability to know what people mean when they talk about raising risk by X or Y, so I consulted my resident scientist. I do wish it were 1%, which I’d happily ignore.

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