Concerns about the underreported health dangers of drinking have risen recently, as the National Institutes of Health came under fire for accepting funding from the alcohol industry to finance research touting the health benefits of moderate drinking.
Now, a new study by School of Public Health researchers has found that the largest American and Canadian cancer prevention organizations failed to state that, even when consumed in low doses, alcohol is a risk factor for cancer.
The study was published in Addiction.
“These results suggest that cancer organizations in general need to be a better job of informing the public that alcohol is a recognized carcinogen and that the risk of cancer is not restricted to people who drink excessively,” says co-author Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences. “The alcohol companies are making a big point of trying to spread the message that moderate drinking is healthy, but they are not telling the truth: Moderate drinking increases your cancer risk. Since alcohol companies are not sending this message, it is incumbent upon cancer organizations to do so.”
Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, liver, colon, rectal, and breast cancer; it is estimated that 3.6 percent of all cancers worldwide are attributable to alcohol consumption. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies alcohol as a group-1 carcinogen. A recent statement by the American Society of Clinical Oncology concluded that even light drinking increases cancer risk, especially for breast and esophageal cancer. However, the link between alcohol and cancer is not recognized in much of the of the scientific literature.
The study assessed health statements on the use of alcohol and the risk of cancer from the largest cancer organizations in a number of high-income countries. These organizations were the Cancer Council Australia (CCA), the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), Cancer Society New Zealand (CSNZ), Cancer Research UK (CRUK), and the American Cancer Society (ACS). The researchers first used the website menu to find any website page discussing causes or risk factors of cancer. They then conducted a site-wide search to find all hits related to the search term “alcohol” and also evaluated the organizations’ policy statements on tobacco versus alcohol.
The researchers found that while all six organizations acknowledged that alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk for cancer of the oral cavity, breast, pharynx, larynx, colon, rectum, liver, and esophagus, neither the American Cancer Society nor the Canadian Cancer identified alcohol as a group-1 carcinogen with no safe threshold of consumption. Moreover, while supporting higher taxes on tobacco, four of the organizations, including the American Cancer Society, did not publish statements advocating for increased alcohol taxes.
“Our findings suggest that cancer organizations, especially the ACS and CCS, should improve the completeness of their communications regarding alcohol as a risk factor for cancer,” the authors wrote.