Almost one in ten cancers in men and three percent of cancers in women in Western Europe are attributable to former and current alcohol drinking, according to a study conducted in France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Greece, Germany and Denmark.

The study authors argue that a substantial proportion (40-98 percent) of the alcohol-attributable cancers occurred in individuals who drank more than the recommended guidelines on upper limits of two standard drinks a day in men and one standard drink a day in women. (A standard drink contains about 12 grams of alcohol and is equivalent to a 125 ml-glass of wine or a half-pint of beer.)

The study calculated that in 2008, current and former alcohol consumption by men was responsible for about 57,600 cases of cancer of the upper digestive tract, colorectum and liver in Denmark, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain and Great Britain. Over half of these cases were caused by drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day. Alcohol drinking by women in the eight countries caused about 21,500 cases of upper digestive tract, liver, colorectum and breast cancer, of which over 80 percent was due to consumption of more than one drink of beer, wine or spirits per day.

“Our data show that many cancer cases could have been avoided if alcohol consumption is limited to two alcoholic drinks per day in men and one alcoholic drink per day in women, which are the recommendations of many health organisations,” the study said. “And even more cancer cases would be prevented if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol at all.”

1. Schütze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al. Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ 2011; 342: d1584. (open access)