We have known for years that sun exposure can lead to skin cancer and smoking can lead to lung cancer. Now a new report reveals that drinking alcohol is responsible for 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, outline the cancer risks linked to alcohol use. This is the first major examination of this topic in over 30 years.

The researchers analyzed cancers of the:

  • rectum
  • colon
  • esophagus
  • liver
  • female breast
  • larynx
  • pharynx
  • mouth

The investigators examined surveys, 2009 U.S mortality data, and sales data on alcohol consumption involving over 220,000 adults.

The researchers found that 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths may be linked to alcohol. For males, cancers of the pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and the mouth appeared to be most commonly related to alcohol intake.

Most deaths associated with alcohol were attributed to people who drink more than three alcoholic beverages a day, however, a third of these deaths may be linked to those who drink less than 1.5 drinks per day.

In 2009, an estimated 20,000 alcohol-related deaths occurred or about 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths.

Precisely how alcohol contributes to cancer is not known, although evidence shows a strong correlation. However, previous research has shown that alcohol affects estrogen levels in females. It also functions as a solvent which allows tobacco chemicals to enter the digestive tract.

Other studies have suggested that alcohol in moderation, like red wine, has health benefits. The current authors emphasized that alcohol causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents.

Lead author Timothy Naimi said:

“The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians. Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”

The authors suggest that alcohol remains a strong factor in cancer mortality. Greater consumption heightens risk, but there is no “safe threshold” for alcohol and cancer risk. In cancer prevention strategies, limiting alcohol intake is too often overlooked.

A study carried out last fall by scientists at Boston University Medical Center revealed that low levels of alcohol consumption have been found to reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.

Additionally, a previous study in JAMA linked alcohol consumption to breast cancer risk. Women who drink between three and six alcoholic drinks per week have a small increase in their risk of developing breast cancer.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald