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Drinking alcohol causes cancer

What you may have heard

Alcohol consumption increases your risk of cancer.

What science tells us

Alcoholic beverages containing ethanol are considered to be psychoactive substances by the WHO (WHO). It can cause harmful effects on the body. Alcohol consumption leads to a buildup of acetaldehyde, which is a toxic byproduct of ethanol (pure alcohol). In the liver, ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde, and a large presence of acetaldehyde interrupts the binding process of DNA, causing cells to not replicate correctly. Consumption of alcohol also causes tissue damage, which makes surface level cells more susceptible to the absorption of carcinogens.

Epidemiological Evidence

There is strong agreement that alcohol use can cause several types of cancer, and it has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (meaning that it is cancer-causing in humans) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)  (ACS). There is a strong “dose-response association” between alcohol use and cancer (the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time, the higher a person’s risk is of developing an alcohol-associated cancer):

  • Head and neck: Moderate drinkers have 1.8-fold higher risk of oral cavity and pharynx (throat) cancers and 1.4-fold higher risk of larynx (voice box) cancers than non-drinkers. Heavy drinkers have 5-fold higher risk of oral cavity and pharynx cancers and 2.6-fold higher risk of larynx cancers (NCI).
  • Esophageal: Compared with those who do not drink alcohol, the risk ranges from 1.3-fold higher for light drinkers to nearly 5-fold higher for heavy drinkers (NCI).
  • Liver: Heavy alcohol drinking is associated with approximately 2-fold increased risk of two types of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma) (NCI).
  • Breast: The cancer risk increase is greater in moderate drinkers (1.23-fold higher) and heavy drinkers (1.6-fold higher) (NCI).
  • Colorectal: Moderate to heavy alcohol drinking is associated with 1.2- to 1.5-fold increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum, compared with no alcohol consumption (NCI).

Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence

Animal studies, particularly among mice, have shown that high alcohol consumption leads to the formation of tumors (NIH).

IARC Carcinogen Classification: Group 1 (Carcinogenic to humans; “Ethanol in alcoholic beverages”)

How to reduce your risk

If someone drinks alcohol, it should be in moderation (NCI). Moderate alcohol drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Heavy alcohol drinking is defined as having 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks per week for women. For men, heavy alcohol drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week.

Bottom line

Drinking alcohol increases risk of multiple types of cancer. US guidelines recommend moderate drinking (up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men).

National Cancer Institute (NCI): Alcohol and cancer 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Alcohol and cancer
American Cancer Society (ACS): Alcohol use and cancer
MD Anderson: Alcohol and cancer
American Institute of Cancer Research: Drinking and cancer
Studies of Cancer in Experimental Animals (NIH)


June 24, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022