On a list published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), alcoholic beverages are included as Group 1 carcinogens.
That means the innocent glass or two of wine you may enjoy each day, thinking that it might be good for your heart, could actually increase your risk for cancer.
And people in the United States seem to be incurring this risk more and more often.
Using data gathered from more than 43,000 participants, researchers in a new study say they have uncovered some disturbing trends in the use and overuse of alcohol among U.S. adults.
The study explores alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) for a 12-month period that ended in June 2013.
Researchers compared the study findings against results of a similarly timed study that ended June 2002. That earlier study used data from more than 36,000 people.
Research data shows a somewhat steady use of alcohol between the early 1970s and early 1990s.
Then things began to change.
Data collected over the next 10 years shows a nearly 50 percent increase in the rate of alcohol use by the early 2000s.
During that time, high-risk drinking behavior and AUD rates also rose, although to a lesser extent.
A five-alarm fire
Now, alarm bells are clanging throughout the medical community.
What was a cause for concern in 2002 has elevated to a full-scale public health crisis.
Scientists say the increases in multiple health conditions and diseases caused by higher rates of alcohol consumption will reduce society’s overall productivity, and place greater financial and emotional stress on families and relationships.
The new study shows the more abusive forms of alcohol use, high-risk drinking and AUD, are increasing at faster rates (29 percent and 49 percent) than alcohol use below those levels (11 percent).
High-risk drinking was considered drinking more than the daily limit at least once a week over the course of the 12-month study.
The daily limit was four standard drinks for women and five for men.
Analysis of study data shows that higher rates of increase exist among women, minorities, the older population, as well as those on the lower end of the income scale.
Reasons for increase are unclear
The authors of the study said they do not have a definitive answer as to why rates of alcohol use have risen so dramatically.
However, there are plenty of opinions from experts on why drinking may be rising.
Dr. John F. Kelly, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute, suggested that some of the problem is lack of education about risks associated with drinking alcohol.
“People don’t realize that alcohol is a level 1 carcinogen. It’s known to cause cancer. It’s recognized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Cancer Research, and it doesn’t take very much alcohol to increase one’s risk for cancer, particularly cancer of the breast in women,” Kelly told Healthline.
In addition, alcohol gets plenty of media coverage, thanks in part to advertisements and strategic product placement in both movies and on television.
It is commonplace in these settings to see alcohol consumed, often in unrealistic amounts, with no sign of drunkenness or other side effects.
Dr. Ed Salsitz, addiction medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, also sees entertainment media as a factor.
“I think that risky alcohol consumption continues to be glamorized in the movies and on television,” Salsitz told Healthline.
On some TV shows, observed Salsitz, “they drink alcohol the same way I would drink water or another nonalcoholic beverage. Morning, noon, or night — whatever they’re doing, they pour a shot and drink it.”
“Maybe it’s because the perception of harm from alcohol has decreased,” added Salsitz. “There’s been these articles over the years saying that a moderate amount of alcohol, not only is not harmful, but could be beneficial for cardiac health.”
Kelly also pointed to sensationalized headlines and articles that gloss over or ignore the downside of excess alcohol use.
“You often see presented in the media reports where they’re actually talking about correlational studies which purport to say that drinking is good for your health,” he said.
“I’ve even seen where it says that having a glass of red wine is as good as going to the gym,” Kelly added. “That makes for great headlines that people love to read. The problem is that it’s just not true.”
“In all likelihood,” Kelly surmised, “alcohol does not protect you by itself.”
Terrorism and the culture of fear
Dr. Carole Lieberman calls herself the “terrorist therapist.”
She says the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America’s psyche has much to do with the increases shown in the study.
“The escalation of alcohol use in the first decade of the 21st century is due to the continuing psychological impact of 9/11,” wrote Lieberman. “This event has shattered our sense of security and caused anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other symptoms of stress. People are drinking to escape the new reality — not only of 9/11 — but, of the ongoing daily threat of terrorism.”
While few believe fear of terror to be the primary cause of increased alcohol use, there is some thought that the media plays up the fear of terror.
“The media is not really there to tell the news,” said Kelly. “They’re just there to sell advertising. So they want to dramatize. They know that what sells and what keeps people watching is fear and dread and bad news, not the good news. It’s the bad news.”
Everyday stress contributes
That reasoning also leads to the theory that increased levels of stress found in everyday life play a part in helping to explain why more people are using alcohol these days.
“Life has become more complex for most people,” observed Salsitz.
“I think the whole computer thing, the emails, the text messages, you’re on 24/7,” added Salsitz. “It’s very rare that somebody goes on a vacation and can shut down and say ‘I’m not available.’ And I think that, whatever that is, with all the screens, and all the communication, that constantly being available… I think that is part of what’s going on.”
Increased stress in daily life is not strictly an American phenomenon.
Canadian naturopathic physician, Dr. Andrea Maxim, BSc, ND, told Healthline, “I certainly have noticed a marked increase in alcohol consumption with my patients. Considering the average male is allowed seven drinks per week, the average female five drinks per week, I have seen patients that are doing that over the course of one to two days.”
“One of the most common reasons I see this is usually related to stress or anxiety management. Adults have never been more overworked, more stressed, lacked more sleep, and have been more strapped for time than in the past five years,” said Maxim.
“Women especially,” continued Maxim, “are stretching themselves beyond what is physically capable of themselves — working full time, taking care of children, and taking care of a home. In some women, I have seen an entire bottle of alcohol consumed per night.”
Out of sight, out of mind
Kelly said there are two factors that influence the consumption of alcohol.
They are price and availability.
He believes we can slow or reverse the trend toward greater alcohol use by levying additional taxes on alcohol and making it more difficult to purchase and use the product.
Kelly points to the dramatic decrease in tobacco use following the imposition of increased taxes, higher prices, and laws making it more difficult to use the product in public.
“Tobacco,” said Kelly, “has a major impact on mortality. Alcohol has a bigger impact on morbidity. It’s also a major contributor to premature mortality, shortening the lifespan by 30 years on average for people who have an alcohol use disorder.”
That’s a lot of time to lose.