Drinking beer, wine and spirits accounted for about 3.5 per cent of all cancer deaths in the U.S., a finding that makes alcohol consumption a leading preventable cause of cancer deaths, according to a new report.

For breast cancer deaths, 15 per cent were related to alcohol consumption, researchers said in Thursday's online issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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About 30 per cent of the alcohol-related cancer deaths were in people who had 20 grams or less of alcohol per day. (Mike Albans/Associated Press)

Cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were also common causes of alcohol-related cancer deaths in men, accounting for about 6,000 deaths each year.

The risk for cancer increased the more people drank, Timothy Naimi of the medicine department at Boston University and his co-authors said.

"There is no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk," they concluded.

"Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy, yet receives surprisingly little attention among public health, medical, cancer, advocacy, and other organizations in the United States, especially when compared with efforts related to other cancer prevention topics such as screening, genetics, tobacco, and obesity."

The purported heart benefits of low alcohol consumption could account for the reluctance to stress cancer prevention, the researchers said, adding that the reluctance may not be justified in an era of declining cardiovascular mortality. 

The researchers said their estimate of 19,500 alcohol-related cancer deaths is greater than total deaths from some types of cancer that often receive more attention, such as melanoma and ovarian cancer.

The findings are in line with an earlier study that estimated alcohol was responsible for 3 per cent of cancer deaths in men and two per cent in women in Canada, the U.S. and Cuba in 2002.

While cancer deaths attributed to alcohol were more common among those who had an average of 40 grams or three drinks or more per day, about 30 per cent of those deaths were in people who had 20 grams or less of alcohol per day.

In Canada, a standard drink has 13.6 grams of alcohol, such as a glass of wine with 12 per cent alcohol or a can of beer containing five per cent alcohol.

The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.