27 July 2021 – Ranging from the ancient civilizations, passing by the famous Dry Lay in the United States, to today´s tolerance, the consumption of alcohol is so popular that sometimes we even forget that alcohol is a drug just like any other, however, it is a legal drug. As a drug, its intake can have serious consequences. To shed light on such damages, ten scientists gathered to investigate the consequences of alcohol consumption and found that 4% of all new cancer cases in 2020 were attributed to alcohol. The study was published this month by the British science journal The Lancet Oncology.
According to the study “Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study” the consumption of alcohol is associated with a wide range of diseases, including cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract (oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and esophagus), colon, rectum, liver and breast. Those diseases contributed to 6.3 million cases and 3.3 million deaths globally in 2020.
The study estimated that 741,300 (4%) of all cancer cases reported globally were caused by alcohol consumption. Among those cases, 568,700 were male patients and 172,600 were female patients. Such data is aligned with the traditional trend of higher consumption among men. The study also points out that most cases are due to excessive consumption (346,400 cases) and risk consumption (291,800 cases), while moderate consumption contributed with 103,100 cases; drinking up to 10 g per day caused 41,300 cancers.
Even though it is related to cancers in various parts of the body, researchers highlight that the most common cases of cancer associated with alcohol consumption are those diagnosed in tissues that come in direct contact with the substance. A publication of that journal in 2017 already drew attention to the fact that “a three-fold increase in the recommended alcohol limit increases the risk of esophageal cancer by eight-fold, leading to estimates that three-quarters of esophageal cancers are due to high consumption of alcohol. As less than 10% of patients bearing esophageal cancer present a 5-year survival rate, prevention is crucial.”
If we take into account that the research was carried out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which still causes emotional stress and deprives people of various social activities around the world, the situation becomes more alarming. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) conducted a survey in 2020 that shows an increase in alcohol abuse by 93.9% during social isolation. Among such consumers, 52.8% reported anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, worry, fear, irritability and difficulty in relaxing. It is understood that the drink was used to relieve everyday stress. Thus, the scale of the danger posed by alcohol is worrying, as around 2 billion people already consume alcoholic beverages regularly in times of stability.
The whole scenario sounds alarming since there are studies indicating benefits in using alcohol moderately, such as one glass of wine a day, for example. However, the British journal study poses doubt on such statements and comments that “historical statements on the benefit of alcohol are probably misinterpreted or exaggerated, since a lower threshold for cancer risk associated to alcohol consumption has not yet been determined.”
There are also associations between alcohol and several types of cancer, but researchers argue that the understanding of the accurate role of alcohol in such cases requires further research to dissociate them from ecological and lifestyle factors. That is necessary because the human body is affected by the environment, such as pollution, quality of water, amount of working and sleeping hours, food, drinking habits and even the type of most consumed alcoholic beverage in the area where one lives. The challenge is to segregate what is the effect of alcohol by itself and what is the effect of alcohol added to other factors.
In this way, we observe that science continues the movement that involves contradictions and a lot of collective work until a consensus is achieved. The study presented is another piece developed by science to assemble the puzzle represented by cancer studies.
Even aware that alcoholic beverages are an intrinsic part of the culture of several nations and that the abolition of their consumption might never happen, the authors of the study “Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study” believe that due to the risk of cancer and other diseases, re-education actions are needed, advocating safer and more moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, in addition to stricter regulation of their consumption – even if that causes strong political and commercial opposition.
Authors: Harriet Rumgay, BSc; Kevin Shield, PhD; Hadrien Charvat, PhD; Pietro Ferrari, PhD; Bundit Sornpaisarn, PhD; Prof. Isidore Obot, PhD; Farhad Islami, PhD; Prof Valery E P P Lemmens, PhD; Prof. Jürgen Rehm PhD; e Isabelle Soerjomataram, PhD.
Text by Letícia Barbosa
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