Don’t ignore the risks of moderate drinking

BOSTON U. (US) — Researchers find that even moderate drinking, one and a half drinks per day, can be attributed to nearly 6,000 cancer deaths annually in the US.

Timothy Naimi, a Boston University School of Medicine and School of Public Health associate professor, and his team suggest that the number of deaths from moderate drinking should not be ignored. Add in alcohol consumption at all levels and the total surges to 20,000 cancer deaths a year, or 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the study.


For men, lethal alcohol-caused cancer typically afflicts the mouth, throat, and esophagus, the researchers say. In women, breast cancer is the most common cancer killer linked to alcohol consumption.

The researchers, whose study appears in the American Journal of Public Health,  synthesized risk estimates from hundreds of other studies to come up with their findings. Naimi believes the big takeaway is the total number of deaths, the role of excessive drinking, and the fact that these deaths are preventable.

Evidence of excessive drinking’s role in cancer is much greater than that for the role of modest drinking, says Naimi, an alcohol epidemiologist specializing in binge and youth drinking and alcohol policy.

But the moderate drinking findings need to be taken seriously, and Naimi says there is evidence from the literature he and his team reviewed supporting their concerns. And, he adds, deaths from alcohol “dwarf any small number of people who may derive benefit from low-dose alcohol.”

Indeed, among all people who start drinking, 5 to 10 times as many die from it as are benefited by it, according to Naimi, who notes that you can’t predict when people begin drinking whether they’ll wind up an alcoholic. “You don’t know prospectively who’s going to end up as a moderate drinker.”

Benefits of moderate drinking?

Nor is he convinced by studies showing heart benefits from moderate drinking. Those studies have never included the accepted standard in scientific research: a randomized, controlled study comparing moderate drinkers with teetotalers.

Also, moderate drinkers tend to come from higher on the socioeconomic ladder, a rung at which people tend to be healthier. In other words, moderate drinking may be “a reflection of people’s social position and good health. It’s not its genesis,” Naimi says.

Studies linking alcohol to cancer are based on calculations using three types of data: the numbers of people who drink at different levels; the prevalence of various cancers at those various drinking levels; and the number of cancer deaths among people at each level.

As for the argument that there’s a certain risk with much of the food we consume—nonorganic fruits and vegetables marinated in pesticides, for example, or brown rice, once thought to be healthy, but now found to contain risky levels of arsenic–Naimi replies, “Alcohol is not a food. Alcohol is a drug.”

Source: Boston University