How many times has someone told you that “having one (alcoholic) drink a day is good for you” or “a glass of wine a day is good for the heart”?
Well, now the World Health Organisation itself has said that when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no “safe amount” of alcohol consumption.
According to WHO, alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance. It has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is the highest risk group and includes asbestos, radiation, and tobacco.
Alcohol consumption is a risk factor in at least seven types of cancer, including the most common types — bowel and breast cancers.
Speaking to South First, Dr Dilip Gude, Senior Consultant Physician, Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad, said, “This is a fad actually — that consumption of 30 to 40 ml of alcohol every day is good for the heart. Even in moderation, if you are drinking alcohol, then there is some load falling on the liver to get it out of the body. People are more likely to get fatty liver.”
He added that atherosclerosis — the build-up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the artery walls — accelerates for people who consume alcohol every day. This can cause several heart and kidney-related issues.
‘Alcohol consumption causes cancer’
Ethanol (alcohol) causes cancer through biological mechanisms as the compound breaks down in the body, which means that any beverage containing alcohol, regardless of its price and quality, poses a risk of causing cancer.
“Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, which damages the DNA. Any amount of alcohol consumption for a long period of time builds up acetaldehyde in the body. Due to this, the body is not able to repair itself. It hampers normal cell growth and causes cells to start replicating incorrectly. Tissues are damaged too and this can lead to formation of tumours,” explained Dr Mohan Prakash Reddy, an oncologist in Hyderabad, when he spoke to South First.
He added, “Oral cancer, which is mostly caused by tobacco, is triggered by alcohol too. Alcohol can act as a solvent, making it easier for other carcinogens, such as tobacco, to be absorbed into the cells. Smokers have up to seven times greater salivary acetaldehyde concentration than non-smokers, even after moderate alcohol consumption. This can cause cancers of the mouth, throat, and oesophagus.”
He said that in women, alcohol consumption can cause circulating oestrogen levels to rise, thus increasing the risk of breast cancer.
According to WHO, the risk of developing cancer increases substantially when more alcohol is consumed.
However, latest available data indicates that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in the WHO European region are caused by “light” and “moderate” alcohol consumption — less than 1.5 litres of wine or less than 3.5 litres of beer or less than 450 millilitres of spirit per week.
This drinking pattern is responsible for the majority of alcohol-attributable breast cancers in women, with the highest burden observed in countries of the European Union (EU).
It’s never ‘just a drink’
To identify a “safe” level of alcohol consumption, valid scientific evidence would need to demonstrate that at or below a certain level, there is no risk of illness or injury associated with alcohol consumption.
The new WHO statement clarifies: Currently available evidence cannot indicate the existence of a threshold at which the carcinogenic effects of alcohol “switch on” and start to manifest in the human body.
Moreover, there are no studies that demonstrate that the potential beneficial effects of light and moderate drinking on cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes outweigh the cancer risk.
“We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink — the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of alcoholic beverage. The only thing that we can say for sure is that the more you drink, the more harmful it is…or, in other words, the less you drink, the safer it is,” Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, acting Unit Lead for Noncommunicable Disease Management and Regional Advisor for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs in the WHO Regional Office for Europe, said in a statement.
The bigger picture
Disadvantaged and vulnerable populations have higher rates of alcohol-related death and hospitalisation due to the increased pattern of drinking.
“So, when we talk about possible so-called safer levels of alcohol consumption or about its protective effects, we are ignoring the bigger picture of alcohol harm in the world,” said Dr Ferreira-Borges.
She added, “Although it is well established that alcohol can cause cancer, this fact is still not widely known to the public in most countries. We need cancer-related health information on labels of alcoholic beverages. We need empowered and trained health professionals who feel comfortable to inform their patients about alcohol and cancer risk. We need overall wide awareness on this topic in countries and communities.”
- Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer
- The most common types of cancer due to alcohol are different for men and women
- The risk of cancer from alcohol consumption increases from the first drink
- Using tobacco as well as alcohol multiplies cancer risks
- Cancers due to alcohol consumption are preventable