Alcohol and cancer

Many of us don’t know that drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, upper throat, voice-box, food-pipe, bowel, liver and breast (in women). Also, there is some evidence that alcohol increases the risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer.

If you combine smoking with drinking, your risk of cancer will increase significantly.

Our recommendations on alcohol are based on good quality evidence. We recommend that:

  • you limit your alcohol intake or not drink alcohol if you want to reduce your risk of developing cancer.  
  • young people do not drink alcohol or delay drinking alcohol for as long as possible if they choose to drink.
  • our Government and councils introduce policies that meaningfully reduce the amount of alcohol available and the amount of alcohol advertising.

Our resources:

Cancer and Alcohol Information Sheet                                    

Cancer and Alcohol Risk Position Statement

Cancer and Alcohol Infographic

Cancer and Alcohol Infographic Poster

Frequently asked questions

1. How does alcohol cause cancer?

As yet we don’t have a definitive answer but good quality evidence tells us that alcohol (ethanol) may cause cancer in the following ways:

  • our body breaks ethanol down into smaller substances that are absorbed into our blood stream. One of these substances is called acetaldehyde.  Acetaldehyde can bond with our DNA (the genetic information in every cell) to increase the risk of cell mutations (damage to cells) and disrupts normal cell replication (how cells normally copy themselves) which may increase the risk of cancer.
  • ethanol comes into contact with our tissue by irritating the moist tissue that lines our digestive tract (mucosa). This irritation makes it easier for substances linked to cancer (carcinogens) to cause damage to our cells
  • ethanol acts as a solvent (a thinner) so our body is more at risk of absorbing other carcinogens
  • ethanol increases our oestrogen levels. This may add to the increased risk of breast cancer in women drinkers. Studies have found oestrogens to have a carcinogenic effect on breast tissue.
  • ethanol causes cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, which increases the risk of liver cancer.

2. What is a safe level of drinking?

No level of alcohol intake is safe in terms of cancer risk. The cancers where alcohol has a strong link are, cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), food pipe (oesophagus), bowel (colorectal), breast (in women) and liver. There is some evidence that heavy drinking also increases the risk of stomach (gastric) cancer and pancreatic cancer.

Cancer risk increases with the amount of alcohol drunk.

3. What is a standard drink?

The standard drinks guide measures the amount of pure alcohol in a drink. One standard drink equals 10 grams of pure alcohol. This is about the same as one 330 ml can of beer at 4 percent alcohol or one 100 ml glass of wine at 12.5 percent alcohol or 30mls of spirit. Because alcoholic drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them (i.e. they are different strengths) the number of standard drinks they equal, will change.

Changing to drinks with lower-alcohol content (e.g. light beer, low alcohol wine) can reduce cancer risk by decreasing the total amount of alcohol drunk.

The Health Promotion Agency’s (HPA) low risk drinking advice asks people to reduce their long term health risks by drinking no more than:

  • two standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks per week.
  • three standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks per week.

HPA also recommend having at least two alcohol free days every week.

The HPA alcohol drinking advice will help people make an informed choice and help keep the risk of alcohol-related injuries, diseases and death low. HPA state that low-risk is not no-risk, and that a range of things can affect risks from drinking alcohol.

For more information on standard drinks visit:  http://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-you/whats-standard-drink

4. How fattening is alcohol?

Alcohol is high in energy (kilojoules or calories) and can easily cause weight gain. Being overweight or obese is also linked with a higher cancer risk.

One gram of alcohol has 27kJ compared with one gram of sugar with 17kJ. One standard drink e.g. 100ml of wine, 30 ml of spirits or 330ml of beer, has 290Kj/69 calories. How much you drink, and what you eat and or mix with your drinks (think mixers, such as lemonade, tonic or cola; or cocktails with cream) can add many more calories. Many people don’t know how much a standard drink is and may be taking in more calories from their drinking than they realise.

Read more about alcohol facts and figures.

5. Does alcohol reduce the risk heart disease?

The Heart Foundation of New Zealand says that alcohol is not a safe or effective treatment to reduce cardiovascular risk (heart problems). The best way to improve heart health is not to smoke, be active, be a healthy weight and chose a healthy diet.

You can read more on the Heart Foundation website.

6. How does alcohol and smoking increase cancer risk?

What we know is that when you mix smoking and drinking together your risk of developing cancer of the mouth, voice box, throat and food pipe increases a lot. The risk of getting one of these cancers is thought to be more than 35 times greater for those who both smoke and drink compared with those who neither smoke nor drink.

7. How can I reduce the amount I drink?

If you drink there are plenty of ways to cut back, including:

  • know what a standard drink is so you can keep track of how much you drink
  • set daily and weekly limits for yourself and stick to them
  • start with non-alcoholic drinks and then drink an alcoholic drink followed by a non-alcoholic drink
  • drink slowly and wait until your glass (or others) is empty
  • chose drinks with a lower alcohol content
  • eat before or while you are drinking

For other ideas on cutting down on drinking see the HPA website.

or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline:0800 787 797 for free confidential information, insight and support with any problem, issue or query you have about your own or someone else’s drinking.

8. How can I be a responsible host?

There are lots of things you can do to be a responsible host including:

  • provide suitable food you’d see at an event like the one you’re giving (for example, nibbles or a meal)
  • offer water
  • offer no-alcohol drinks
  • offer low-alcohol drinks
  • be a good host by waiting until your guest has finished their drink before offering them another (wait for glasses to be empty)
  • do not serve alcohol to guests aged <18 years
  • make sure guests are safe at the event
  • help guests get home safely

For more ideas on being a good host see the HPA website.

9. What should I say to my teen about alcohol? 

Talk to your kids about alcohol and why it makes good sense for them not to drink, or at least delay their drinking. 

For more ideas on talking to teens see the HPA website.

To read more about alcohol and life stages (including teens and the elderly) read this HPA publication.

Links to other agencies

Cancer Council Australia’s National Cancer Prevention Policy has a chapter on Alcohol and Cancer. You can read this chapter here

For an overview of alcohol and its health effects visit the Health Promotion Agency website.

The Cancer Society supports Alcohol Action New Zealand and their 5+ solution:

  1. Raise alcohol prices
  2. Raise the purchase age
  3. Reduce alcohol accessibility
  4. Reduce marketing and advertising
  5. Increase drink-driving counter-measures

PLUS: Provide more treatment for heavy drinkers that want help to stop.

If you want help to reduce your drinking the Ministry of Health has links to organisations that can help. Look at their advice.

Last Updated: 1 November 2017

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