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Policies and Practices for Cancer Prevention: Reducing Excessive Alcohol Use

Stop alcohol-related cancer

Excessive alcohol use is associated with many health and social problems, including cancer.

View policies and practices [PDF-1.1MB]

More than half of adults in the United States drink alcohol.1 Alcohol use increases the risk of several cancers, including female breast cancer.2,3,4 There are evidence-based community strategies that work to reduce excessive alcohol use.5 This publication provides information about alcohol use among young people and adults and potential strategies for reducing excessive alcohol use in your community.

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) and can contribute to the development of cancers of the female breast, liver, colon, rectum, mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.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.6

Box 1. How Is Alcohol Use Defined?

Moderate alcohol use is defined as consuming up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per 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 brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08% or more. This is usually defined as consuming four drinks or more for women and five drinks or more for men on a single occasion, generally within about two hours.

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

The same amount of alcohol is contained in 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol), and a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof distilled spirits (liquor such as vodka, whiskey, gin, or rum). All of these are considered a “standard drink” in the United States. Source: National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Alcohol Use Among Adults

Alcohol use is one of the most common risk factors for cancer among adults in the United States.1

  • 56% of adults drink alcohol.
    • 67% of adult drinkers exceed guidelines for moderate alcohol use.7
  • 17% of adults binge drink.
  • 6% of adults are heavy drinkers.

Alcohol Use Among Young People

While the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 years, drinking alcohol is common among young people in the United States.8

  • 35% of high school students drink alcohol.
  • 21% of high school students have had five or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion (in other words, reported binge drinking).

Box 2. What Are the Guidelines for Alcohol Use?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

  • Don’t start drinking or increase the amount you drink on the basis of potential health benefits. Even moderate intake is associated with increased risks, including some cancers.
  • If you choose to drink, do so in moderation—up to one drink a day for women or up to two drinks a day for men.
  • Don’t drink at all if you are under 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).

Cancer and Alcohol Infographic

Alcohol and Cancer infographic

Drinking alcohol raises the risk of some cancers. Drinking any kind of alcohol can contribute to cancers of the mouth and throat, larynx (voice box), esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast (in women). The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer.

Multiple bottles of various alcoholic beverages.

What Works to Reduce Excessive Alcohol Use

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

Doctor talking to his patient.

What Comprehensive Cancer Control Programs Can Do to Reduce Excessive Alcohol Use

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 discussing among each other.

Potential Partners for Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalitions

A list of potential partners and sources of information for comprehensive cancer control coalitions to engage in efforts to reduce excessive alcohol use.

Multiple stick figures within a network.


A list of references for all scientific data that accompany this page.