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This content was last updated on March 31, 2021

The Cancer Research

Research shows that drinking alcohol increases the risk of many forms of cancer. The extent to which alcoholic drinks are a cause of various cancers depends on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed.

There is a consistent link with increased cancer risk and alcohol, regardless of whether it’s beer, wine, or distilled liquor. You may hear about red wine containing healthy compounds, such as resveratrol. But risk comes from alcohol (ethanol) itself and among wine drinkers, the risk doesn’t vary by whether drinking red or white.

A standard drink is defined by the amount of alcohol it contains, not by what fits in a glass. In general, one drink translates to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a 1½-shot of distilled spirits. But some brands are more concentrated in alcohol, making the amount of alcohol you drink add up fast.

There is no “safe” amount of alcohol that does not increase risk of at least some cancers.

  • Increased risk of breast and esophageal cancers starts at less than one drink per day.
  • The greater the alcohol consumption, the greater the cancer risk. For some cancers, such as colorectal, liver and laryngeal cancers, risk mainly increases with amounts beyond moderation (which is no more than 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men).
  • Any reduction in alcohol consumption is a step toward lower risk of cancer.

There is strong evidence that consuming alcohol INCREASES the risk of:

  • Breast Cancer
  • Colorectal Cancer
  • Esophageal Cancer
  • Liver Cancer
  • Mouth, Pharynx, and Larynx Cancer
  • Stomach Cancer

Interpreting the data

After a systematic review of the global scientific literature, AICR/WCRF analyzed how foods and their nutrients affect the risk of developing cancer.

“Convincing” or “probable” evidence means there is strong research showing a causal relationship to cancer—either decreasing or increasing the risk. The research must include quality human studies that meet specific criteria and biological explanations for the findings.

A convincing or probable judgement is strong enough to justify recommendations.

  • There is convincing evidence that alcohol INCREASES the risk of:
    • Breast (postmenopausal), colorectal, esophageal (squamous cell), liver, mouth, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers
  • There is probable evidence that alcohol INCREASES the risk of:
    • Stomach and premenopausal breast cancers

“Limited suggestive” evidence means results are generally consistent in overall conclusions, but it’s rarely strong enough to justify recommendations to reduce risk of cancer.

  • Limited evidence suggests that alcohol may INCREASE the risk of:
    • Lung and pancreatic cancers
Source: AICR/WCRF. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective, 2018.

Ongoing Areas of Investigation

  • Research Update

    Strong evidence shows that as alcohol consumption increases, it increases the risk of many forms of cancer. This includes cancers of the breast, colorectum, esophagus (squamous cell), stomach, liver, mouth, pharynx, and larynx.

    Research has identified several mechanisms that could explain the link between alcohol and increased risk of cancer:

    • In your body, alcohol is metabolized to a compound called acetaldehyde, which is a recognized human carcinogen (capable of causing cancer). Cancer-causing damage could come from acetaldehyde disrupting DNA and from free radicals produced during alcohol metabolism.
    • Human intervention trials and observational studies both link alcohol consumption with higher circulating levels of estrogen. Alcohol increases the risk of all forms of breast cancer, and risk is particularly increased for estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer, which is the most common form.
    • Alcohol can cause tissue damage, or increase the ability of carcinogens to do damage, in the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, colon and liver.
    • Alcoholic beverages are a concentrated source of calories that can contribute to weight gain. Excess weight and weight gain increase the risk of at least 12 forms of cancer.


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