Drinking Alcohol Can Raise Cancer Risk. How Much Is Too Much? : The Salt A study finds light drinkers have the lowest combined risk of getting cancer and dying prematurely — lower than nondrinkers. Alcohol is estimated to be the third-largest contributor to cancer deaths.

Drinking Alcohol Can Raise Cancer Risk. How Much Is Too Much?

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All right, a study published today in the scientific journal PLOS offers insight into the complex relationship between drinking alcohol and the risk of cancer and premature death. The study finds that light drinkers have the lowest risk. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Researchers studied about a hundred thousand people who lived in a bunch of U.S. cities including Birmingham, Boulder, LA and Pittsburgh. They were in their mid-50s to early 70s when the study began, and all completed surveys about their alcohol consumption. Researchers tracked their health for about nine years and found that the more a person drank, the higher their risk of cancer and cancer-related death. Andrew Kunzmann of Queen's University Belfast in Ireland is the study author.

ANDREW KUNZMANN: We definitely think it gives a bigger picture about what's going on here.

AUBREY: So how much is too much? This study suggests that light drinkers have the lowest combined risk of cancer and premature death, even lower than people who never drink, though it's not clear why. In this study, light drinking was defined as one to five drinks per week.

KUNZMANN: It seems to reassure light drinkers.

AUBREY: The study suggests that cancer risk starts to increase when people drink more than a drink a day, but the increase is modest. Moderate drinkers in the study had about a 10 percent increased risk of getting cancer. It's heavy drinkers who are most at risk. For instance, men who drank three drinks or more per day were 3 to 4 times more likely to develop cancer of the esophagus and liver cancer. The study comes at a time when some of the top cancer doctors in the U.S. are trying to get the word out about the risks of drinking too much. Here's oncologist Noelle LoConte of the University of Wisconsin. She's the lead author of a recent statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

NOELLE LOCONTE: We're not proponents of complete abstinence. There probably is an amount of drinking that's OK. But from a cancer-prevention standpoint, if you want to prevent cancer via diet, then drinking the least amount of alcohol possible would be the best strategy. And this study reinforced that.

AUBREY: As have other studies. But LoConte says the message has yet to get out. Most people are aware of the link between, say, skin cancer and sun exposure and lung cancer with tobacco use. But when it comes to drinking alcohol...

LOCONTE: We do not think that most Americans are currently aware of the link between alcohol and cancer.

AUBREY: In fact, a survey done by the American Society of Clinical Oncology last year found that about 7 in 10 adults did not recognize drinking alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. LoConte says the group is pushing for more education to spread the word and help put the risks in context. She says around the globe, about 5 percent of all cancers are linked to alcohol. The big ones are head and neck cancers as well as liver, colorectal and, in women, breast cancer. LoConte says one way to help people cut back is to help them be more realistic about how much they're actually consuming.

LOCONTE: I think in helping people understand what light drinking is, I think the first thing we need to talk about is what is a drink, right? So that's a single shot, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.

AUBREY: It's really easy to drink more than this without realizing it. Current guidelines recommend no more than one drink a day for women, two for men, but LoConte says even this might be too much.

LOCONTE: I think this study, as I reviewed it, looked like a safer amount would be one drink a day for everybody regardless of gender.

AUBREY: At least that's what this study suggests. More research is underway. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.


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