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Wine May Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer, Even in Smokers

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WebMD Health News

Oct. 16, 2000 -- Many people already are taking a glass of wine with meals in an effort to reduce their chances of getting heart disease. Now, a new study reports that the fruit of the vine also may reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.

This is surprising, because alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, say experts gathered in New York for a meeting of the American College of Gastroenterolgy. And that glass of wine -- the researchers don't yet know if red or white is better -- can even lower the risk of colon cancer among smokers, says researcher Joseph C. Anderson, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Anderson tells WebMD that he discovered the wine link when studying several lifestyle factors that influence the development of precancerous growths called polyps. Left undetected, polyps are thought to develop into colon cancer.

He explains that researchers will now use the data they have to determine whether the protective effect is true of both white and red wine. While wine had a protective effect, "other grain alcohols like beer or vodka did not have a protective effect," and appear, in fact, to increase the risk.

Anderson recorded lifestyle histories from 1,500 patients who were undergoing the screening test called colonoscopy for the first time. Among those patients who were nonsmokers, just more than 4.5% of the wine drinkers (defined as those who had at least one glass of wine per week) were found to have a polyp. The rate of polyps in beer drinkers was three times higher, and in teetotalers the rate was almost twice as high.

But wine had its biggest impact among smokers: Less than 4% of smokers who drank at least one glass of wine a week was found to have a polyp, he says. But quaffing a cold one while lighting up is a dangerous combination, Anderson says: Almost 23% of smokers who said they also were beer drinkers had polyps detected. So did about 13.5% of nondrinkers who smoked.

Stephen Holland, MD, a staff gastroenterologist at the Christie Clinic in Champaign, Ill., who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD that beer drinkers are likely to be "very different than wine drinkers or vodka drinkers in reporting their consumption." Holland says that when his patients fill out history forms, "beer drinkers will routinely say they don't drink, because they don't admit that beer drinking is drinking." For that reason, Holland suggests that the "group identified as 'grain drinkers' may be consuming much higher levels of alcohol, and that could increase their risk."

While Anderson agrees there is some room for error in the study, he points out that "these are people who came in for screening colonoscopy, so by that very action they are likely to be more health-conscious and not as likely to abuse alcohol."

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