Booze and Cancer: A Drink a Day Ups Your Risk

Is a little daily alcohol good for you or bad for you? The heart experts say it’s good, but the cancer experts – and a major new study – disagree.

The first analysis in 30 years to look at the link between cancer deaths and alcohol says even as little as a glass of wine a day is worrisome.

Researchers with Boston University Medical Center and the National Cancer Institute found that alcohol is to blame for one in every 30 cancer deaths each year in the U.S., or about 20,000 deaths annually. That works out to about 3.5 percent of the nation’s more than 577,000 cancer deaths per year.

And even moderate drinkers have some reason to worry, researchers said. Up to 35 percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths are linked to drinking 1.5 drinks or less a day, the report found.

The study was published online Feb. 14 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The research showed that breast cancer accounted for most alcohol-related cancer deaths in women, about 15 percent or some 6,000 cases a year. In men, cancers of the mouth and throat were the most common cause of alcohol-related cancer deaths, also about 6,000 cases a year, according to NBC News.

“As expected, people who are higher alcohol users were at higher risk, but there was really no safe level of alcohol use,” study coauthor David Nelson, M.D., with the National Cancer Institute, told HealthDay News.

Not everyone was ready to throw away the corkscrew, however. Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told NBC News that while the new study provides a valuable update of alcohol’s effect on cancer deaths, it doesn’t change his mind about the positive effects of  moderate drinking on heart disease.

“I think they’ve pooh-poohed the heart benefits, which is as strong as any evidence can be,” Rimm said. Studies have shown that those who don’t drink have a 50 percent higher risk of heart attack than those who do.

Even some cancer experts note that smoking is a much more powerful factor in cancer deaths than alcohol. Although about 20,000 cancer deaths can be attributed to alcohol each year, more than 100,000 cancer deaths are caused by smoking, Susan Gapstur with the American Cancer Society told HealthDay News.

And researchers still can’t say exactly how alcohol causes cancer, just that it appears to contribute to some deaths.

Bottom line:  Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of alcohol and whether your personal health history means you should be cutting back on – or even cutting out – that daily cocktail.

Or you could just drink more coffee.

Photo:  DeeJayTee23 /flickr