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Alcohol consumption linked to more than 740,000 new cancer cases in 2020: Study

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Four percent of newly diagnosed cancer cases in 2020 – equating to more than 740,000 cases – is associated with drinking alcohol, according to a new global study published in The Lancet Oncology.

The figures have led to its authors calling for greater public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancers, and better public policy and increased government intervention to reduce the burden of alcohol-attributable cancers in the worst-affected regions.

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The study estimates that, globally, men accounted for 77 percent (568,700 cases) of alcohol-associated cases, compared with women, who accounted for 172,600. Figures were the highest in eastern Asia – including China, Vietnam and India - and eastern and central Europe, including the UK, Germany and France.

Cancers of the esophagus, liver, and breast accounted for the largest number of cases.

Based on data from previous years, it is estimated that in 2020, there were more than 6.3 million cases of mouth, pharynx, voice box (larynx), oesophageal, colon, rectum, liver, and breast cancer.

The authors said in the study that these cancers have well-established causal links to alcohol consumption, especially heavy alcohol use (more than six alcoholic drinks a day).

Authors warned that disruptions to healthcare and cancer services across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have affected diagnosis rates for that year, and may have led to an underestimation of new cancer cases in the recorded data.

According to the World Health Organization, three million deaths are recorded worldwide every year due to harmful use of alcohol – equating to 5.3 percent of all deaths.

Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions, including major non-communicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, and cardiovascular diseases, in addition to injuries resulting from violence and road clashes and collisions. It can also worsen the cancer-causing effects of other substances, such as tobacco.

'Urgent action needed'

“We urgently need to raise awareness about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk among policy makers and the general public. Public health strategies, such as reduced alcohol availability, labeling alcohol products with a health warning, and marketing bans could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer,” said Harriet Rumgay from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), France.

In the new study, researchers established levels of alcohol intake per person per country for 2010 - ten years prior to the cancer case data, to allow for the time it takes for alcohol intake to affect possible cancer development. The research then combined them with estimated new cancer cases in 2020 (for the cancer types with the strongest evidence of a causal link to alcohol in their main analyzes, plus all cancers combined except non-melanoma skin cancer) to estimate the number of alcohol-associated cancers in each country.

“Tax and pricing policies that have led to decreased alcohol intake in Europe, including increased excise taxes and minimum unit pricing, could also be implemented in other world regions. Local context is essential for successful policy around alcohol consumption and will be key to reducing cancer cases linked to drinking,” Rumgay concluded.

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