When we think about cancer and its causes, we often think about smoking, UV rays and chemicals like formaldehyde or arsenic. All of these substances are considered “class 1 carcinogens”, indicating strong evidence exists to demonstrate that they cause cancer. What many people find surprising is that alcohol is also a class 1 carcinogen. In fact, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, only 1/3 of people in Ontario are aware that they can reduce their risk for cancer by reducing the amount of alcohol they drink.
Although alcohol is a socially acceptable part of our lives and is widely available, it is also surprising to know that you don’t have to be a heavy drinker to be at increased risk for cancer. As little as 1 serving of alcohol per day for women and 2 per day for men can increase the risk for 7 types of cancer.
These include cancer of the:
· Female breast
It doesn’t matter what type of alcohol you drink (beer, wine or liquor), the risk remains the same. Similarly, cancer risk also increases regardless of whether you binge drink or spread your drinking out over the week.
The government of Ontario is promoting new measures for making alcohol more available, such as grocery stores and home delivery, aiming to ‘service’ Ontarians better; however, messages about alcohol harms, particularly related to cancer, are rarely shared. Research shows that increased access to alcohol results in increased alcohol consumption; with increased consumption a significant number of people are unknowingly putting themselves at increased risk for cancer. According to Cancer Care Ontario, it is estimated that in 2012 nearly 1 million Ontarians reported drinking alcohol at levels that put them at higher risk for cancer.
It’s safe to say our culture normalizes and even celebrates drinking alcohol as a way of life. Everywhere we go the message to drink alcohol surrounds us, but the messages about the risks, particularly related to cancer, are rarely included. Tobacco is a well-known carcinogen and smoking rates have dropped dramatically in the past 20 years. Major legislative action was taken to regulate the sale, marketing and availability of cigarettes, all to protect our health. The evidence we have supports alcohol as a major risk factor for cancer and many other chronic health conditions. This is beyond the second-hand effects of drinking and driving, violence and unplanned sexual encounters. It’s time to carry over lessons from tobacco legislation to safeguard health and lives.