What you don’t know can hurt you.
At least when it comes to alcohol and cancer.
A new report released this week concludes there is a relationship between alcohol consumption and the risk of certain types of cancer.
The study focused on people in Europe, but the findings also have major implications for the United States.
According to research by United European Gastroenterology (UEG), European alcohol consumption is higher than any other region in the world.
And that rate of alcohol consumption is putting EU citizens at increased risk of digestive cancers.
Those cancers have been increasing, although many people don’t realize the risk.
“Alcohol contributes to a huge number of diseases but, worryingly, up to 90 percent of people aren’t aware of the risk associated between alcohol and cancer,” Dr. Helena Cortez-Pinto, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine of Lisbon, a study author and a member of the UEG, told Healthline.
Deadly types of cancer
Pancreatic, liver, gastric, colorectal, and esophageal cancers are the most common digestive cancers in the world, responsible for nearly 3 million deaths annually — more than one-third of cancer deaths around the globe.
In one previous investigation, known as the EPIC Study, researchers found that out of 57,600 cases of cancer found in the upper digestive tract, colon, and liver in men, 80 percent involved those who regularly drank more than one alcoholic drink per day.
The UEG reports that the risk for numerous types of cancer often increases, even with seemingly casual amounts of drinking.
Esophageal cancer risk is increased by just a single drink per day.
Colorectal cancer risk is increased by one to four drinks per day.
Four or more drinks per day leads to higher risk of gastric, pancreatic, and liver cancers.
The UEG classifies four or more drinks per day as “heavy” drinking. One-fifth of the European population fits this designation.
Looking for a link
There are still some unanswered questions regarding the relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer.
For example, it’s not known if binge drinking increases cancer risk more than casual drinking, even though binge drinking has been identified as dangerous for numerous reasons.
Some behaviors, on the other hand, have been linked to increased cancer risk.
“There is very strong evidence that drinking, in association with smoking, markedly increases the risk of digestive cancers, especially in the cavity and pharynx,” said Cortez-Pinto.
The UEG also says that research into the types of alcohol have thus far been inconclusive. For example, is wine safer or healthier than vodka or beer?
Cortez-Pinto noted that the alcoholic content of a beverage may increase cancer risk, but more research is needed on the subject.
A problem in the United States?
Despite this new report’s focus on the European population, it is also significant for people in the United States.
Alcohol consumption in the United States (1.6 drinks per day, on average) sits just behind Europe (1.9 drinks per day).
To some degree, cultural differences between the Unites States and Europe are responsible. Europe has a “wet culture,” in which alcohol plays a role in daily events, including meals, and has a deep sociocultural history.
On the other hand, the United States is considered a “dry culture,” in which alcohol is less common during everyday activities, and abstinence is more common. In dry cultures, alcohol consumption is more likely to result in intoxication.
Binge drinking, particularly among teens and young adults, remains an ongoing problem in the Unites States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is “the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States.”
The American Cancer Society recommends that men limit their alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day. Women shouldn’t have more than one.
What can be done?
Based on the UEG report, even that amount of drinking may be too much.
The UEG is committed to helping lower European alcohol consumption by 2025 by 10 percent, but there is lots of work to be done.
The report proposes labeling changes to include risk warnings and ingredient lists as a way of keeping consumers informed.
And both the UEG and the CDC recommend pricing strategies and appropriate taxation as a way to moderate alcohol sales.
However, according to the report, “There is much more to do to convince the public, healthcare professionals, and policy makers of the urgent need for change across Europe.”