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Limit Alcohol to Reduce Cancer Risk

Cancer and alcohol consumption

For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol

Alcohol use is the third leading modifiable factor that increases cancer risk, after cigarette smoking and excess body weight. Research from AICR’s Continuous Update Project has found that even less than one drink per day – of any kind of alcohol – increases the risk of several common cancers, including breast, head and neck, and esophageal cancers.  A reduction in alcohol consumption lowers risk.

The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk for cancer. Even though most of us understand that drinking alcohol can be harmful, many Americans reach for a beer or a glass of wine without too much thought. If you want to take a proactive approach to cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol.

Think Before You Drink

Any reduction in alcohol consumption will lower your risk for developing cancer. If you’re going to drink, consider drinking less. Here are some tips to help:

Be Mindful of Moderation

If you enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage, or you’re socializing where alcohol is being served, it is good to drink thoughtfully and in moderation.

If you do drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. That’s because even when men and women drink the same amount of alcohol, higher levels are seen in the bloodstream of women than of men. This means women’s organs are exposed to higher levels of alcohol than men.

Skip a Round

If you’ve had a round or two already, why not skip the next one, and order a alternative drinks such as a club soda, a non-alcoholic beer, some unsweetened iced tea, or sparkling water. Non-alcoholic drinks will not only give your body a break from processing the alcohol, they will also help to rehydrate you.

Be Conscious of Habits

When you are out socializing and having fun, it is easy to drink more than you initially intended. The more alcohol you consume, the less aware you become about your drinking habits, so it’s best to practice being more conscious about how you drink:

  • Be aware that restaurants and bars often serve larger than standard size alcoholic drinks.

  • Order smaller sizes.

  • Avoid asking for a double.

  • Sip slowly.

  • Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

  • Enjoy low or no-alcohol alternative drinks (such as non-alcoholic beer).

  • Keep some days alcohol-free each week.

Strong evidence points to the link between alcohol consumption and cancer.  Drinking alcohol is directly linked to six different cancers and cancer risk from alcohol is consistent, whether you’re drinking beer, wine or distilled liquor.

Link between Alcohol and Cancer

It’s in the ethanol. Scientists are still researching how alcohol causes cancer. Ethanol, the alcohol found in drinks, is recognized as a carcinogen that may lead to DNA damage.

How does Alcohol cause Cancer?

  • When you drink alcohol and you process ethanol, your body breaks it down into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde not only damages your DNA, it also prevents your body from repairing the damage.

  • Damage to your DNA can cause issues. DNA is your cells’ “instruction manual.” When your DNA is not working properly, your body’s cellular growth and function is affected — and cancer develops from out of control cell growth.

  • Alcohol may also reduce folate absorption or help potential carcinogens enter cells.

Cancer and Alcohol use

  • Alcohol and Breast Cancer

    Women’s risk for breast cancer – especially after menopause – increases with greater alcohol consumption.  Even drinking less than one drink a day increases risk.  In fact, women at high risk for breast cancer should consider not drinking alcohol.

  • Alcohol and Weight

    Alcoholic drinks are high in calories and can contribute to weight gain, which increases cancer risk. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer.

    By reducing your alcohol consumption, you can decrease your risk of developing a beer belly and cancer.

  • Alcohol to Improve Health

    The current evidence does not support recommending drinking alcohol as a way to improve health for any reason – for instance, to prevent heart disease.

Alcohol Labeling and Cancer Prevention

Why better Alcohol Labeling is required to reduce risk of cancer

There is strong evidence that alcohol intake increases the risk of at least six cancers, yet a majority of Americans are unaware of this link.  AICR supports improved labeling of alcoholic beverages, including the addition of a label about the connection between alcohol and cancer risk, to help people make more informed choices.

Recent research finds that only 32% of Americans know that alcohol increases the risk of cancer, corroborating the findings from AICR’s Awareness Survey that less than half of Americans are aware of the connection.

Changes needed for Alcohol Labeling

Public policies are needed to decrease the tens of thousands of cancer cases that are caused by alcohol consumption each year.  To educate about the cancer risks of consuming alcohol, AICR supports adding a label to alcoholic beverages, similar to and to rotate with the existing warning labels on the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy and while driving a motor vehicle.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the addition of such a label.

Given that alcoholic beverages also provide significant calories and can contribute to excess weight, AICR also supports the addition of a Servings Facts label to alcoholic beverages that includes key information such as calories, serving size and alcohol content per serving. Currently, alcoholic beverages are exempt from providing the same nutrition and ingredient information as nonalcoholic beverages.

Reducing Cancer Risk by Taking Action on Alcohol

In October 2020, AICR signed a citizen’s petition with public health partner organizations requesting that the Treasury Department’s Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau report to Congress on the well-documented link between alcohol and cancer. AICR also signed letters to the Surgeon General in December 2020 and the Treasury Secretary in 2021 advocating for the addition of a cancer warning to alcoholic beverages. AICR continues to garner Congressional support for this important policy change.


Check In With Your Health

The choices we make each day can help reduce our risk of cancer.
AICR's new Cancer Health Check will help you learn more about your
choices and how you can stack the odds in your favor.