It’s not just cigarettes to be wary of when it comes to increasing your cancer risk. Alcohol is one of the top contributors to cancer deaths and years of potential life lost, according to researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). Their findings also show that reducing alcohol consumption is an important cancer prevention strategy, since alcohol is a known carcinogen even when consumed in small quantities.

Previous studies consistently have shown that alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver. More recent research has shown that alcohol also increases the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum, and female breast. While estimates have shown that alcohol accounts for about 4% of all cancer-related deaths worldwide, there is a lack of literature focusing on cancer-related deaths in the U.S., the scientists note.

The researchers at BUSM and colleagues from the NCI, the Alcohol Research Group, Public Health Institute, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health examined recent data from the U.S. on alcohol consumption and cancer mortality. They found that alcohol resulted in approximately 20,000 cancer deaths annually, accounting for about 3.5% of all cancer deaths in the U.S.

The most common cause of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in women was breast cancer, accounting for approximately 6,000 deaths annually, or about 15% of all breast cancer deaths. Cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus were common causes of alcohol-attributable cancer mortality in men, resulting in a total of about 6,000 annual deaths.

Each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost, the researchers calculated. In addition, although higher levels of alcohol consumption led to a higher cancer risk, average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day (20 grams of alcohol) or less accounted for 30% of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

“The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians,” says Timothy Naimi, M.D., from the Department of Medicine at BUSM, who served as the paper’s senior author. “Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”

The study is published in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Public Health in a paper titled “Alcohol-Attributable Cancer Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost in the United States”.

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