Many cancers avoidable with less drinking: study

Drinking too much alcohol is blamed for a 'considerable proportion' of cancer cases, a large new European study suggests.

Lack of warning labels in Canada 'scandalous'

A waitress carries a load of one litre beer mugs to thirsty customers at the start of the Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich in 2010. German researchers say a 'considerable proportion' of the most common and most lethal cancers can be attributed to drinking alcohol. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

Drinking too much alcohol is blamed for a "considerable proportion" of cancer cases, a large new European study suggests.

The study in this week's issue of the medical journal BMJ said current or former alcohol consumption could be blamed for as much as 10 per cent of cancer cases in men and three per cent in women.

The conclusions were based on following more than 100,000 men and 250,000 women aged 37 to 70 in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark from 1992 to 2005.

"A considerable proportion of the most common and most lethal cancers is attributable to former and current alcohol consumption," wrote lead author Manuela Bergmann of the Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke in Nuthetal, Germany.

"This strongly underlines the necessity to continue and to increase efforts to reduce alcohol consumption in Europe, both on the individual and the population level."

Too much drinking was also blamed for seven per cent of breast cancers in German women and 28 per cent of colorectal cancers in Spanish men, the results show.

"The effect was greater for certain cancers which we already know there's a causal relationship between …like liver, mouth, throat, esophagus and breast cancer," said Dr. Karl Kabasele, CBC's medical commentator.

Standard drink labels

Canada has a national alcohol strategy that covers alcohol pricing and availability. But labelling alcohol bottles better with specific warnings about cancer risk would help reduce its adverse health effects, said Prof. Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research. 

"It's a citizen's right-to-know issue," Stockwell said in an interview. "I think it's scandalous that vested interest groups have persuaded governments that it's not necessary to inform consumers about the risks of things like cancer from this product that most of us use and love."

People are warned about the risks of tanning salons, for example, but alcohol's risks are not clearly spelled out, Stockwell said.

The Canadian Cancer Society acknowledged that cancer risks of drinking have received little attention.

"I think there's a lot of misconception about the safety of alcohol, " said Gillian Bromfield, a policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto. "A lot of people really don't understand the risk of cancer from alcohol intake."

Alcohol labels could also carry more useful information about how many standard drinks of alcohol are found in a bottle of wine or spirits, Stockwell suggested. That way, it would be easier for people to translate upcoming national guidelines on quantity and frequency of drinking that are considered low risk to their personal behaviour.

In the study, researchers used a mathematical model to take factors such as smoking, diet and exercise into account in calculating the number of cancers attributed to drinking more than recommended.

The research was funded by several European health authorities.

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia, Amina Zafar and The Associated Press