Alcohol and cancer risk

Does alcohol increase your cancer risk?

There are lots of good health reasons for cutting down on alcohol – and reducing your cancer risk is one of them.

We have strong scientific evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks are a cause of several types of cancer:

Research has shown that alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking, especially for increased risk of liver, oesophageal, mouth and throat cancer.

To reduce your cancer risk as much as possible, we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. If you do choose to drink alcohol, follow national guidelines. In the UK, the guideline is to drink no more than 14 units a week, which is roughly equal to seven drinks, spread over at least three days.

Lots of people in the UK drink more than this, but cutting down could make a big difference to your health. For example, we could prevent about 1 in 5 breast cancer cases – 11,000 cases a year – by not drinking alcohol.

Our recommendation is don't drink alcohol – find out how 

Our Head of Health Information talks to the BBC about alcohol and cancer prevention

What is a ‘drink’?

A drink contains about 10–15 grams of alcohol, so one drink is the same as:

  • Half a pint of normal strength beer, lager or cider
  • One 25ml measure of spirits such as vodka or whisky
  • One small 125ml glass of wine

It is important to remember that drinks contain different amounts of alcohol depending on their size and strength. In recent years, the standard serving sizes and the strength of many alcoholic drinks has increased, making it easier to drink more than you realise.

How does alcohol increase cancer risk?

Scientists are still researching the ways that alcohol can lead to cancer. One theory is that when alcohol is broken down in our bodies, harmful compounds are formed that might directly damage the DNA in our cells, which can then lead to cancer.

Are there any health benefits to drinking alcohol?

Alcohol doesn’t have any benefits in terms of cancer prevention – in fact, drinking any amount increases your risk – so to protect yourself against cancer as much as possible, we suggest not drinking alcohol at all.

The latest evidence suggests that the benefits of drinking alcohol for heart health are less than previously thought and only apply to women over 55 – and even for them, the greatest reduction in risk is seen in women who drink 5 units or less a week.

Remember; a healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of both cancer and heart disease.

Does alcohol cause weight gain?

Alcohol can be surprisingly high in calories. They are often called ‘empty calories’ because alcoholic drinks don’t contain vital nutrients such as protein, vitamins or fibre. The lack of fibre means it is easy to drink large volumes without feeling full.

Alcohol can also contribute to weight gain by increasing appetite, which means that if you drink, you might be tempted to eat more than you need.

Try our handy alcohol calorie calculator to see how alcohol adds to your calorie intake. Cutting down on the amount you drink could help you to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which in turn can help to reduce your cancer risk. 

How much alcohol do adults in the UK drink?

  % drinking alcohol in previous week
Men 63
Women 51

Of those who drank alcohol in the last week, 28 per cent of men drank more than 8 units on their heaviest drinking day and 25 per cent of women drank more than 6 units on their heaviest drinking day.

Figures from 2016

Approximately how many cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented per year if everyone stopped drinking alcohol?

Type of cancer Amount of cases
  % Number
Breast 22 11,700
Mouth, pharynx and larynx 41 4,400
Bowel 7 3,000
Oesophagus (squamous cell carcinoma) 48 1,500
Stomach 4 280
Liver 3 160
Total   21,000

Alcohol statistics come from the Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2005 to 2016, Office of National Statistics. Find out more about preventability estimates or, for more detailed information, download appendix A of our policy report. Find figures on cancer incidence for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
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