Alcohol Consumption Linked to 4% of Global Cancer Incidence in 2020

A new study found that alcohol consumption was linked to more than 740,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed in 2020 across the globe. These findings were published in The Lancet Oncology.

“We urgently need to raise awareness about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk among policy makers and the general public. Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labelling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer,” said Harriet Rumgay, PhD candidate at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, via press release.

Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk

For this study, the investigators used the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health to gather alcohol consumption estimates from 2010, assuming a 10-year latency period between alcohol consumption and cancer diagnosis. These data were compared to cancer incidence data collected from the GLOBOCAN 2020 database. The researchers also calculated the impact of moderate (<20g per day), risky (20–60g per day), and heavy (>60g per day) consumption on the alcohol-attributable cancer burden.

In 2020, there were more than an estimated 6.3 million cases of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophageal, colon, rectum, liver, and breast cancer, which have “well-established causal links to alcohol consumption,” according to the authors. Overall, 4.1% of all new cancer cases, or 741,300 cases, in 2020 were attributable to alcohol. More than three-quarters of cases (568,700 cases) were in males. Esophageal, liver, and breast cancers were the biggest contributors of new alcohol-attributable cases.

Heavy drinkers (>60g per day) had the highest cancer burden (46.7%) compared to those who consumed less alcohol daily. Risky drinking (20–60g per day) accounted for 39.4% of cancer cases and moderate drinking (<20g per day) accounted for 13.9%.

Geographic Differences in Cancer Incidence

There was significant geographic variability in incidence. Alcohol-attributable cancer cases were lowest in north Africa (0.3%) and central and western Asia (0.7%) and highest in eastern Asia (5.7%) and central and eastern Europe (5.6%). “Local context is essential for successful policy around alcohol consumption and will be key to reducing cancer cases linked to drinking,” said Rumgay.

Rumgay concluded, “Trends suggest that although there is a decrease in alcohol consumption per person in many European countries, alcohol use is on the rise in Asian countries such as China and India, and in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, there is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of drinking in some countries. Our study highlights the contribution of even relatively low levels of drinking to rates of cancer, which is concerning, but also suggests that small changes to public drinking behavior could positively impact future cancer rates.”