Americans Largely Unaware of Link Between Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages and Risk of Cancer

While some people realize that drinking increases the risk of cancer, a few think it actually lowers the risk, a study finds.

alcohol consumption and cancer risk

Many Americans are unaware of the fact that consuming alcoholic beverages of any kind increases the risk of developing cancer, and some incorrectly think that drinking reduces the risk, according to a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

“All types of alcoholic beverages, including wine, increase cancer risk,” said William M.P. Klein, PhD, senior author of the study and associate director of the 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.” 

The study showed that about a third of U.S. adults (31 percent) were aware that consumption of hard liquor increases the risk that the drinker might develop cancer. Approximately 25 percent acknowledged a higher risk from consumption of beer, and 20 percent for wine. 

More than 50 percent of U.S. adults reported not knowing how alcoholic beverages affect cancer risk.

Ten percent of U.S. adults said consumption of wine decreases the risk of developing cancer, while 2.2 percent said beer decreases risk and 1.7 percent said liquor lowers cancer risk. Klein noted that the findings occur “in the prevailing context of national dialogue about the purported heart health benefits of wine.” 

While such benefits have been reported, the researchers noted that there is abundant evidence that alcohol increases the risk of heart disease. People who knew about this risk were more likely to be aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. Heart disease awareness followed similar patterns to cancer awareness, with 38.9 percent, 36.4 percent, and 25.1 percent of U.S. adults believing that liquor, beer, and wine, respectively, increased heart disease risk.

“Alcohol is a leading modifiable risk factor for cancer in the United States,” said the study’s lead author, Andrew Seidenberg, MPH, PhD, who conducted this research while serving as a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute. 

Seidenberg cited research that shows that alcohol contributed to an average of more than 75,000 cancer cases and almost 19,000 cancer deaths per year between 2013-2016. All beverage types containing ethanol, such as wine, beer, and liquor increase cancer risk. To date, seven cancer types have been linked to alcohol consumption, including cancers of the breast, mouth, and colon.

This study was based on data from the 2020 Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), encompassing survey responses from 3,865 adults. 

Among other findings, drinking status had little effect on awareness, with similar rates for non-drinkers, drinkers, and heavier drinkers. Older U.S. adults demonstrated lower awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. Among those over age 60, 15.7 percent were aware of the risk for wine; 17.8 percent for beer; and 23.7 percent for liquor. By comparison, among adults aged 18-39, 26.1 percent were aware of the risk for wine; 33.1 percent for beer; and 39.1 percent for liquor. Seidenberg said this may be due to more long-standing drinking habits among older people.

The authors said the study confirms that many Americans would benefit from further education about the links between alcohol and cancer. Such education would be especially useful given that studies suggesting that wine may confer health benefits have received significant media attention, they noted. 

They suggested that interventions could include mass media campaigns, cancer warning labels, and patient-provider communications. Tailoring messages to desired audiences could help increase message relevance, Klein said. 

“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,” he said.

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health through its iTHRIV Scholars Program.