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Research Summary

Alcohol Is a Leading Risk Factor for Cancer

Alcohol is a known risk factor for a number of cancers. To calculate the proportion of cancer deaths attributable to alcohol and other risk factors, researchers analyzed systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and data from the World Health Organization.

  • Over one third (35%) of cancer deaths worldwide were attributable to 9 risk factors: overweight and obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol use, unsafe sex, urban air pollution, indoor smoke, and contaminated injections.
  • Cancer sites affected by alcohol included the mouth and oropharynx, esophagus, liver, and breast.
  • Alcohol use was among the top 3 causes of cancer deaths* worldwide (responsible for 4%–5% of cancer deaths).
  • Of the 4 cancers that were largely attributable (>50% of cases) to the risk factors studied, alcohol was a major cause of 2 (mouth and oropharynx, and esophageal cancers).


Aggregate data such as these do not inform us about drinking levels associated with specific cancer risks. However, they do tell us that addressing alcohol use can help prevent cancer.

Richard Saitz, MD, MPH
*Attributable to the 9 risk factors studied


Danaei G, Vander Hoorn S, Lopez AD, et al. Causes of cancer in the world: comparative risk assessment of nine behavioural and environmental risk factors. Lancet. 2005;366(9499):1784–1793.