Alcohol increases the risk of cancer, but some Americans think it does the opposite, a new study shows.
Researchers set out to understand people's awareness of the links between alcohol and cancer, finding that many would benefit from further education on the issue.
“All types of alcoholic beverages, including wine, increase cancer risk,” said senior study author William Klein, associate director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Behavioral Research Program. “This study's findings underscore the need to develop interventions for educating the public about the cancer risks of alcohol use, particularly in the prevailing context of national dialogue about the purported heart health benefits of wine.”
Using data from a government survey that included responses from more than 3,800 adults, the researchers analyzed answers to questions that included “In your opinion, how much does drinking the following types of alcohol affect the risk of getting cancer?” The investigators also asked the participants about their own alcohol intake.
About 31% of participants were aware of the cancer risk for liquor, followed by nearly 25% for beer and just over 20% for wine.
Some actually thought that alcohol reduced cancer risk, including 10% of participants who said wine reduced risk, 2.2% who thought beer lowered risk and 1.7% who said that liquor did, the findings showed.
More than 50% of people reported not knowing the impact of these beverages on cancer risk.
The study also asked participants about heart disease and alcohol. About 39%, 36% and 25% of U.S. adults said they believed that liquor, beer and wine, respectively, increased heart disease risk.
Older adults were less aware of alcohol's association with cancer risk. This may be due to more longstanding drinking habits among older adults, said Andrew Seidenberg, who led the study while serving as a cancer prevention fellow at the cancer institute.
Awareness about alcohol and cancer risk was not associated with drinking status. Nondrinkers, drinkers and heavier drinkers all had similar awareness rates.
Alcohol contributed to an average of more than 75,000 cancer cases and almost 19,000 cancer deaths each year between 2013 and 2016, according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).
“Alcohol is a leading modifiable risk factor for cancer in the United States and previous research has shown that most Americans don't know this,” Seidenberg said in an AACR news release.
Any beverages that contain ethanol increase cancer risk, including wine, beer and liquor. Alcohol consumption has been linked to cancers of the breast, mouth and colon.
Interventions to educate the public could include mass media campaigns, cancer warning labels and patient-provider communications, the authors said. Tailored messages could help increase message relevance, Klein noted.
“Educating the public about how alcohol increases cancer risk will not only empower consumers to make more informed decisions, but may also prevent and reduce excessive alcohol use, as well as cancer morbidity and mortality,” Klein said.
Potential study limitations include the unconditional structure of some survey questions, the authors said. Some data were also collected during the pandemic, when many Americans reported drinking more than usual.
The findings were published Dec. 1 in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.