As Liam Gallagher once whined, to get through a crazy situation, “all I need are cigarettes and alcohol”. Ever since the world woke up to just how terrible tobacco actually is, looking aloof and sophisticated whilst puffing on a Marlboro has become much more difficult than it once was. Knowing that you’re probably giving yourself bronchitis makes being blasé much more difficult to pull off. Thankfully, when most of us are trying to look cool, we can still turn to booze.
However, to the undoubted dismay of every other socially insecure drinker out there, news this week suggests that alcohol may be doing us much more harm than good. According to a new study led by researchers from the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Bangor University and University of Southampton, drinking a bottle of wine per week may increase the lifetime risk of cancer by the equivalent of smoking between five to ten cigarettes.
According to the team, the elevated risk comes from the increased likelihood of cancer developing in parts of the body such as the bowel, liver and oesophagus, depending on how regularly alcohol is consumed. Researchers estimate that if 1,000 non-smoking men and women each drank one bottle of wine per week during their lifetime, approximately 10 men and 14 women would develop cancer as a result, relative to if alcohol wasn’t a factor.
Unsurprisingly, the statistics get even worse if you drink more alcohol. Research suggests that if the same groups drank three bottles of wine per week, around 19 men and 36 women would develop cancer - equivalent of around eight cigarettes for men and 23 for women.
The disproportionate effect of alcohol on men and women was one of the most startling aspects of the report. Scientists concluded that the elevated risk for female drinkers centred around breast cancer, writing that “One bottle of wine per week is associated with an increased absolute lifetime risk of alcohol-related cancers in women, driven by breast cancer, equivalent to the increased absolute cancer risk associated with ten cigarettes per week.” In total, the team estimated that a bottle of wine per week increases the absolute lifetime cancer risk for non-smokers of 1 percent for men and 1.4 percent for women.
Publishing their findings in the medical journal BMC Public Health, the team were keen to emphasise the worrying public disconnect between the relative health impacts of drinking versus smoking. As Dr Theresa Hydes, who worked on the study, put it, “It is well established that heavy drinking is linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, gullet, bowel, liver and breast. Yet, in contrast to smoking, this is not widely understood by the public. We hope that by using cigarettes as the comparator we could communicate this message more effectively to help individuals make more informed lifestyle choices.”
If hangovers tell us anything, it is that excess alcohol probably isn’t great for us. However, if these new findings are to be believed, it looks like the situation may be more serious than we’d like to admit. While alcohol in moderation has been shown to be a good thing and have a number of positive health benefits, if these new findings are correct we may all have to be much more mindful about what we’re drinking.