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Alcohol Linked to Higher Cancer Incidence in Some States

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Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol consumption has been an established risk factor for several cancer types, but a recent study looked deeper into prevalence by state.
  • Proportions of alcohol-related cancer seem to be higher in New England and most Western states.
  • Researchers suggested policies are needed to reduce alcohol-related cancer outcomes.

Alcohol consumption is a well-established risk factor for several cancer types, and a new study finds that the prevalence of cancers linked to alcohol varies by state.

Looking at data spanning from 2013 to 2016 in the U.S. Cancer Statistics database, researchers compared those numbers to surveys that included alcohol consumption prevalence by state.

Detailing their findings in Cancer Epidemiology,??? they noted that the proportion of alcohol-attributable cancer cases ranged from 2.9% in Utah, the lowest, to the highest in Delaware, at 6.7%. In general, prevalence seems to be higher in New England and most Western states, with the exception of Utah.??

Nationally, alcohol consumption accounts for about 75,000 cancer cases and 19,000 deaths annually, researchers added.

Joshua Scott, MD

Alcohol has multiple deleterious effects on different systems of the body.

— Joshua Scott, MD

Potential Policy Shift

According to the Centers for Disease Control, drinking alcohol raises your risk of six kinds of cancer:??

  • Mouth and throat
  • Larynx
  • Esophagus
  • Colon and rectum
  • Liver
  • Breast in women

Having state-level data is useful for promoting more public health initiatives, according to study co-author Farhad Islami, MD, PhD, scientific director of the Cancer Disparity Research team at the American Cancer Society. He added that understanding where the largest problems are, and who is most at risk, can help shape programs that address consumption.

For instance, alcohol-related cancer is particularly problematic for women in Delaware, constituting an estimated 7.7% of cancers for that population.??

Study Timing

Although the recent research was done before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, its results are especially timely. Several studies and trend reports are indicating increased alcohol consumption associated with the virus lockdowns, turning potential cancer incidence and other issues into a looming concern.

For example, a survey of 832 people, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,???? looked at drinking behaviors during the pandemic.?? Around one-third of participants reported binge drinking, and 7% reported extreme binge drinking. In general, about 60% of those surveyed said they had increased their alcohol consumption, mainly due to stress, boredom, or both. (It is worth noting that a large majority of respondents were white and female, so the drinking rates may not match those of the general population.)

In addition to potentially higher cancer risk in the long-term, there are many short-term, negative effects that could sabotage health, according to Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

“Alcohol has multiple deleterious effects on different systems of the body,” he says. “Not only does it cause dehydration since it’s a strong diuretic, but it can [also] affect sleep, decrease your body’s ability to process sugar, and affect your motor skills...the neurological effects can be significant.”

Increasing consumption because of pandemic-related stress could have the opposite effect that a drinker wants—due to subsequent poor sleep, increased dehydration, more brain fog, and other physical effects, drinking can actually add to anxiety, stress, and depression, says Scott.

Moderation Is Key

If alcohol consumption has been creeping up during the pandemic, one strategy may be to dial it back to the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which suggests one drink per day or less for women and two drinks or less for men.??

Keep in mind that what constitutes a “drink” might be less than you think.For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that guidelines are based on a standard drink that contains 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:??

  • 12 ounces of regular beer of about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, typically about 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, about 40% alcohol

But some beverages have higher alcohol amounts than the standard. For instance, some craft beers can have an alcohol by volume (ABV) level that is far above a typical beer—a handful even boast an ABV that’s higher than distilled spirits.

Also, some people may underestimate the amount based on the volume itself. Large, goblet-like wine glasses tend to hold much more than one serving of wine, for example. The NIAAA notes that every wine bottle holds about five servings.??

The takeaway is that being aware of how much you’re drinking in terms of ABV and staying on the lower end of the recommendations—as well as having alcohol with food—can be helpful, Scott says. Also, it might be useful to simply take a break and have non-alcohol options instead for a while, and that’s true no matter where you live.

What This Means For You

If you’ve tried to lower your alcohol consumption as a way to improve health and find yourself struggling, check out Rethinking Drinking, from the National Institutes of Health. The site includes information about drinking levels, signs of a problem, and tools to make a change.

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Article Sources
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  1. Sauer AG, Fedewa SA, Bandi P, et al. Proportion of cancer cases and deaths attributable to alcohol consumption by US state, 2013-2016. Cancer Epidemiol. 2021;71(A):101893. doi:10.1016/j.canep.2021.101893

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and cancer. Updated July 8, 2019.

  3. Grossman ER, Benjamin-Neelon SE, Sonnenschein S. Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic: a cross-sectional survey of US adults.?Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(24):9189. doi:10.3390/ijerph17249189

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Published December 2020.

  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink?. 2021.

  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. How many drinks are in common containers?. 2021.