Preventing Cancer by Reducing Excessive Alcohol Use

Photo of empty wine, shot, cocktail, and beer glasses

Regardless of drink type (beer, wine, or liquor), the risk of cancer increases with the number of drinks consumed.

More than half of adults in the United States drink alcohol.1 Alcohol use increases the risk of cancers of the female breast, liver, colon, rectum, mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.2,3,4 There are evidence-based community strategies5 and clinical strategies6 that work to reduce excessive alcohol use.

Cancer Risks Linked with Alcohol Use

Excessive alcohol use is associated with many health and social problems. Alcohol is a carcinogen (something that can cause cancer).2,3,4 Regardless of drink type (beer, wine, or liquor), the risk of cancer increases with the number of drinks consumed, and even one drink a day increases the risk of developing cancers of the female breast, mouth, and esophagus.3 Reducing alcohol use may reduce the risk of cancer.7

How Is Alcohol Use Defined?

Moderate alcohol use is defined as limiting intake to one drink or less in a day for women and two drinks or less in a day for men.

Excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, any alcohol use by individuals under the age of 21 years (minimum legal drinking age), and any alcohol use by pregnant women.

Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol use that generally brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08% or more. This is usually defined as consuming four drinks or more for women, or five drinks or more for men, on an occasion.

Heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight drinks or more per week for women and 15 drinks or more per week for men.

Source: Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol and Public Health

12 ounces 5% ABV beer; 8 ounces 7% ABV malt liquor; 5 ounces 12% ABV wine; 1.5 ounces 40% ABV (80-proof) distilled spirits.
What Are the Guidelines for Alcohol Use?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,8

  • To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.
  • Don’t drink at all if you are younger than age 21, pregnant or may be pregnant, have health problems that could be made worse by drinking, or are engaging in activities for which alcohol is dangerous (like driving).
  • The Guidelines also do not recommend that you start drinking for any reason. Even moderate intake is associated with increased risks, including some cancers.
Bottles and glasses of wine, beer, and liquor

Community strategies can help communities create social and physical environments that prevent excessive alcohol use.

Photo of doctor talking to his patient

Health care providers can screen adults for excessive alcohol use to identify people whose levels or patterns of alcohol use place them at increased risk of alcohol-related harms.

Business people meeting using a laptop computer, calculator, and paper charts

To address alcohol as a risk factor for cancer, comprehensive cancer control programs can start or continue important activities to help reduce excessive alcohol use in their communities.

A meeting of partners

This list of potential partners and sources provides information to help comprehensive cancer control coalitions reduce excessive alcohol use in their communities.

References

1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Prevalence and Trends Data, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/brfss/brfssprevalence/.

2International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Volume 96: Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate.external icon Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2010.

3International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Volume 100E: Personal Habits and Indoor Combustions.external icon Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2012.

4Boffetta P, Hashibe M. Alcohol and cancer.external icon Lancet Oncology 2006;7(2):149–156.

5Community Preventive Services Task Force. Guide to Community Preventive Services: Preventing Excessive Alcohol Consumption.external icon

6U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Unhealthy Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Adults: Screening and Behavioral Counseling Interventions.external icon November 2018.

7World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington, DC: AICR; 2007.

8U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. 9th Edition.external icon December 2020.

Page last reviewed: January 31, 2022