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Alcohol a Direct Cause of Cancer Say U.K. Researchers

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Jan. 28, 2022 -- Researchers in Great Britain say they have confirmed that alcohol is a direct cause of cancer, reinforcing the need to lower the amount of alcohol people drink as a cancer prevention technique.

Worldwide alcohol use is responsible for an estimated 3 million deaths each year, with over 400,000 of these being from cancer. The authors point out that with alcohol use rising, particularly in rapidly developing countries such as China, there is an "urgent need to understand how alcohol affects disease risks in different populations".

According to a U.K. government report, sales of alcohol there between 2019 and 2020 - before and during the pandemic - increased by 25%. The study authors warned that before the pandemic there was already an increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths, and that "the pandemic seems to have accelerated these trends.”

'Difficult to Establish Whether Alcohol Directly Causes Cancer'

For their study, published in the International Journal of Cancer , the researchers, from Oxford University, Peking University in China and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, used DNA samples from over 150,000 Chinese people who are part of an ongoing study there. The study includes more than 500,000 people recruited between 2004 and 2008 from 10 diverse areas across China, including both rural and urban regions.

The group Cancer Research UK says that drinking alcohol increases the risk of seven different types of cancer – breast, bowel, oral, esophageal, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and liver. The researchers said in their study that it has been "difficult to establish whether alcohol directly causes cancer, or if it is linked to possible confounding factors -- such as smoking and diet -- that could generate biased results.”

They also said it was unclear whether alcohol is linked to other types of cancer, including lung and stomach cancers.

The researchers pointed out that since women rarely drink alcohol in China, the main analysis focused on men, a third of whom drank regularly, that is, most weeks.

The researchers said of the 150,722 adults enrolled,  from 10 areas in China during 2004-2008, after just over 11 years’ follow-up about 6%had developed cancer.

The researchers said the results remained the same when the data was adjusted for other cancer risk factors, such as smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass, and family history of cancer.

Senior researcher Iona Millwood, from Oxford, said: "Our study reinforces the need to lower population levels of alcohol consumption for cancer prevention, especially in China where alcohol consumption is increasing despite the low alcohol tolerability among a large subset of the population."

While agreeing that the study findings support the evidence that alcohol can cause cancer, Michael Jones, senior staff scientist at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: "It is important to note that the study was conducted in China, where the types of alcoholic drink and the pattern of drinking may be different to consumption elsewhere in the world. In other words, results could differ across populations."

Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, said the study is well done, but said the results "do not add much to what we already know," adding that, "limiting alcohol consumption is one of many ways to live a healthier lifestyle that helps reduce cancer risk.”