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Alcohol causing almost 25pc more cancer cases than thought

Alcoholic drinks – Rui Vieira/PA

Alcohol consumption is likely to have caused 16,800 people in the UK to develop cancer last year, a study published in the Lancet has found.

Almost two thirds (10,600) of cases were in men, with 6,300 in women. This accounts for 4.1 per cent of all cancer diagnoses in the UK last year – previous estimates had put the figure at 3.3 per cent, around 25 per cent less.

An international team of researchers, led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France, studied the role of alcohol in global cancer rates. They found that almost 750,000 cases last year were linked to alcohol consumption, accounting for around four per cent of all diagnoses.

Men accounted for 77 per cent of alcohol-associated cancer cases worldwide. Mongolia had the highest level of cancers caused by alcohol, at 10 per cent. Three per cent of cancers in the US were due to alcohol, rising to four per cent in Brazil and Germany, five per cent in India and France and six per cent in China.

An individual’s risk of cancer increases the more alcohol they drink, the study authors said. Data showed heavy drinkers accounted for almost half (47 per cent) of alcohol-related cancers. A heavy drinker was defined as someone who had at least six alcoholic drinks per day.

“Risky” drinkers, who drink between two and six alcoholic drinks a day, accounted for 37 per cent, but even moderate drinking – up to two drinks a day – accounted for 14 per cent.

‘Cutting down can reduce your risk of cancer’

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, told The Telegraph that alcohol increased the risk of bowel, breast, laryngeal, liver, mouth, oesophageal and pharyngeal cancers and said: “There’s no ‘safe’ level of drinking but, whatever your drinking habits, cutting down can reduce your risk of cancer.”

Harriet Rumgay, of the IARC and the study author, said: “We urgently need to raise awareness about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk among policymakers and the general public.

“Public health strategies such as reduced alcohol availability, labelling alcohol products with a health warning and marketing bans, could reduce rates of alcohol-driven cancer.”

Ms Mitchell said minimum unit pricing, already in use in Scotland and Wales and soon to be introduced in Northern Ireland, would help counteract alcohol intake and be a “positive step” for England.

Alcohol consumption can damage DNA through increased production of harmful chemicals which affect hormone development, and can worsen the cancer-causing effects of substances such as tobacco.

Researchers established levels of alcohol intake per person per country for 2010 and then compared this to estimated cancer rates for 2020. The 10-year gap was to allow for the time it takes for alcohol intake to affect possible cancer development.

Mark Petticrew, professor of public health evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “This large, robust study provides further clear evidence that alcohol consumption contributes to a significant burden of cancer, particularly heavy drinking.

“The public needs clear independent information, and this study makes a significant contribution to clarifying the risks.”

The findings are published in the journal Lancet Oncology.