Cancer warning: Popular drink equates to five to 10 cigarettes

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The grim reality about cancer is that anyone can get it. That’s not to say that the risk is not modifiable. A range of lifestyle factors have been associated with an increased risk of cancer. Drinking a bottle of wine has been implicated in a way that causes some consternation.

Drinking a bottle of wine per week may be like smoking five to 10 cigarettes in the same time period, in terms of cancer risk, according to a study from the United Kingdom.

The research, published in the journal BMC Public Health, should serve as a clarion call for the general public to drink in moderation.

“Our estimation of a cigarette equivalent for alcohol provides a useful measure for communicating possible cancer risks that exploits successful historical messaging on smoking,” lead study author Doctor Theresa Hydes, of the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said in a statement at the time.

“We hope that by using cigarettes as the comparator we could communicate this message more effectively to help individuals make more informed lifestyle choices.”

Still, the researchers stressed that the study isn’t saying that moderate alcohol consumption is the same thing as smoking.

The study only considered cancer risk, and not the risks of other health conditions, such as heart disease.

In addition, the study looked at the lifetime risk of cancer in the general population, which might differ from an individual’s cancer risk from either smoking or alcohol, the authors said.

How did the researchers arrive at this conclusion?

They aimed to answer the question: In terms of cancer risk, how many cigarettes are in a bottle of wine? One bottle contains about 80 grams (2.5 ounces) of pure alcohol.

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They estimated that, among nonsmokers, drinking one bottle of wine per week is tied to a 1.0 percent increase in lifetime cancer risk for men; and a 1.4 percent increase in lifetime cancer risk for women.

In other words, if 1,000 men and 1,000 women each drank one bottle of wine per week, about 10 extra men and 14 extra women would develop cancer at some point in their lives, the researchers said.

The higher risk among women is mainly due to the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer.

This risk was comparable to smoking five cigarettes per week for men and 10 for women.

The findings are striking but not entirely surprising: if you drink alcohol, you are more likely to get cancer than if you don’t.

But drinking alcohol doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely get cancer.

Your exact risk will depend on lots of factors, including things you can’t change such as your age and genetics.

Nonetheless, “even a small amount of alcohol can increase your risk, so the more you can cut down the more you can reduce your risk”, warns Cancer Research UK.

According to the charity, there are three main ways alcohol can cause cancer:

  • Damage to cells. When we drink alcohol, our bodies turn it into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can cause damage to our cells and can also stop the cells from repairing this damage
  • Changes to hormones. Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones such as oestrogen and insulin. Hormones are chemical messengers and higher levels can make cells divide more often, which raises the chance that cancer cells will develop
  • Changes to cells in the mouth and throat. Alcohol can make cells in the mouth and throat more likely to absorb harmful chemicals. This makes it easier for cancer-causing substances (like those found in cigarette smoke) to get into the cell and cause damage.

“Remember, it’s the alcohol itself that causes damage. It doesn’t matter whether you drink beer, wine or spirits,” notes the charity.

“All types of alcoholic drink can cause cancer.

According to the NHS, both men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

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