Alcohol linked to cancer in eight countries in Western Europe

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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)

Smokers who drink heavily are at highest risk of death

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Smoking and drinking is unhealthy

Cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol drinking are both related to an increased risk of death. A study from Scotland found that smokers who drank 15 or more units of alcohol per week were at highest risk of death, particularly because these heaviest drinkers were more likely to smoke more than people who drank less.

Smoking had stronger effects than alcohol for most of the causes of early death investigated, including coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. Blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) generally increased with alcohol consumption, but decreased with smoking, with those who had never smoked but who drank 15 or more units per week having the highest blood pressures and BMIs.

A person’s socioeconomic position and level of education were strongly related to both alcohol consumption and smoking. For example, 30 percent of men who worked in manual jobs were both smokers and heavy drinkers compared with only 13 percent of men in other jobs. “Given the increased mortality rates associated with both smoking and heavy drinking, this will inevitably contribute to socioeconomic health inequalities,” researchers said.

These findings reinforce the importance of continuing to prioritize smoking cessation. “Given the strong links between smoking and heavy drinking, it may also be helpful to devise policies aimed at reducing both smoking and alcohol consumption in population groups where this is common,” the study concluded.

1. Hart CL, Smith GD, Gruer L, Watt GCM. The combined effect of smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol on cause-specific mortality: a 30-year cohort study. BMC Public Health 2010; 10: 789. (open access)

Alcohol-related cancer cases and deaths in China

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Despite more than 60 percent of Chinese men and 90 percent of Chinese women reporting no alcohol drinking, a study shows that alcohol consumption accounted for 4.40 percent of cancer deaths and 3.63 percent of cancer cases in China in 2005.

Liver cancer was the main alcohol-related cancer, contributing more than 60 percent of alcohol-related cancers.

“Particular attention needs to be paid to the harm of alcohol as well as its potential benefits when making public health recommendations on alcohol drinking,” according to the study.

1. Liang H, Wang J, Xiao H, et al. Estimation of cancer incidence and mortality attributable to alcohol drinking in china. BMC Public Health 2010; 10: 730. (open access)

Binge drinking may lead to higher risk of heart disease

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Binge Drinker

New finding show that Northern Ireland’s binge drinking culture could be behind the country’s high rates of heart disease, according to a study which compared drinking patterns of middle-aged men in France and Northern Ireland.

The study found that the volume of alcohol consumed over a week in both countries is almost identical. However, in Northern Ireland alcohol tends to be drunk over one or two days rather than regularly throughout the week as in France. The research also found that the average amount of alcohol consumed in Northern Ireland over the weekend is around 2-3 times higher than in France.

Men who binge drink had nearly twice the risk of heart attack or death from heart disease compared to regular drinkers over the 10 years of follow up.

Another reason for the higher risk of heart disease in Northern Ireland could be that more people tend to drink beer and spirits than wine. In France, wine is the main alcoholic drink of choice and established research has concluded that drinking a moderate about of wine can protect against heart disease.

The study defined binge drinking as excessive alcohol consumption (over 50g) drunk over a short period of time, for example on one day during the weekend (50g of alcohol equates to 4-5 drinks, and a drink to 125ml of wine or a half pint of beer).

1. Ruidavets J-B, Ducimetière P, Evans A. Patterns of alcohol consumption and ischaemic heart disease in culturally divergent countries: the Prospective Epidemiological Study of Myocardial Infarction (PRIME). BMJ 2010; 341: c6077. (open access)