Alcohol and cancer: Is any amount of drinking really safe?

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How much alcohol is it really safe to drink?

Possibly less than you’ve been led to believe, say French researchers writing in CMAJ (the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal).

In a piece published Monday, Paule Latino-Martel, a cancer researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, and co-authors argued that many countries’ alcohol consumption guidelines -- which typically define a moderate, “sensible” level of drinking designed to help consumers drink safely -- fail to take into account long-term risks associated with drinking.

The U.K. introduced the concept of “sensible drinking” back in the 1980s. Such limits were intended to prevent hospitalizations due to alcohol abuse, which had been on the rise in the country. In 1984, the British established recommended limits of 18 drinks a week for men and nine drinks for women; in 1987, they raised those limits to 21 drinks for men and 14 for women. U.S. guidelines recommend no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one for women.

(According to the study, the standard drink size in the U.K. is 8 grams, or about 3 ounces; a standard drink in the U.S. is 13.7 grams, or about 5 ounces. Average recommended daily limits for alcohol are therefore slightly higher in Britain than in the U.S.)

The problem? Such rules may have kept people from getting too drunk, but they failed to take into account the growing body of work linking alcohol use with cancer, according to the authors. In recent years, alcohol consumption has been shown to increase the risk of mouth, throat, breast, colorectal and possibly liver cancers, in such reports as this one from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research and this one published in the journal the Lancet in 2009.


For this reason, Latino-Martel and coauthors cautioned health authorities -- including the government of Canada, which is expected to release new drinking guidelines later this year -- against telling consumers that any amount of drinking is truly safe, at least, when it comes to cancer risk.

“It can be concluded that there is no level of alcohol consumption for which the cancer risk is null,” they wrote. “Thus, for cancer prevention, the consumption of alcoholic beverages should not be recommended.”
And no: the reported benefits of drinking for heart health don’t change that, they added. Recent research has pointed out flaws in studies showing a positive link between alcohol use and cardiovascular health, they said. The team also pointed to a World Health Organization committee’s recent conclusion that “there is no merit in promoting alcohol consumption as a preventive strategy” for heart disease.

Click here to read the article in CMAJ (subscription required).