If you’re a woman, drinking one bottle of wine per week negatively impacts your cancer risk as much as if you were smoking ten cigarettes per week.
It’s a scary comparison, but what does it really mean?
The study that came to this conclusion was published in the journal BMC Public Health and conducted by a team of researchers from the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Bangor University, and University of Southampton.
While a bottle of wine is equivalent to ten cigarettes for women, it’s only equal to five cigarettes for men. That’s because alcohol especially affects breast cancer risk.
Researchers said that the public generally views alcohol consumption as far less harmful than smoking, even though there is a direct link between alcohol and cancer. They hope that by drawing the comparison between drinking and smoking, the danger of drinking will be made clear.
“It is well established that heavy drinking is linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, gullet, bowel, liver and breast,” said Dr. Theresa Hydes, who worked on the study. “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.”
The effect of drinking on cancer risk differs slightly for men and women, but, overall, there’s an increased absolute lifetime cancer risk of 1% for men and 1.4% for women. It’s higher in women because drinking particularly drives breast cancer risk, the study says. Lifetime risk of cancer hovers around 50% for both men and women, so moderate drinking raises that to about 51% for both sexes.
One bottle of wine per week for non-smokers is comparable to smoking about 5 cigarettes per week for men, and 10 for women; three bottles of wine per week for non-smokers is comparable to smoking about 8 cigarettes per week for men and 23 cigarettes per week for women.
In the UK, the average drinker consumes about a bottle and a half of wine per week, and the average smoker has about 70 cigarettes a week. Cancer risk is dependent on multiple factors; a bottle of wine or half a pack of cigarettes a week don’t necessarily have the same impact on every person.
While the study’s researchers are comparing alcohol to cigarettes as a way to raise awareness, they emphasize that the two risks themselves are not equal.
“We must be absolutely clear that this study is not saying that drinking alcohol in moderation is in any way equivalent to smoking. Our finds relate to lifetime risk across the population,” said Dr. Hydes.
About four times as many cancer cases stem from smoking than stem from alcohol consumption.
This has led some people in the alcohol industry to cry foul over the comparison.
A spokesperson from the Alcohol Information Partnership said the study only adds to the confusion around health risks associated with drinking. The organization is funded by the drinks industry.
“The conclusions drawn from this study are both unhelpful and confusing at a time when the public is being bombarded by contradictory warnings of risk,” the spokesperson said. “There are a wide variety of genetic and lifestyle factors that can contribute to an increased risk of cancer, and the study itself is clear that drinking in moderation is not equivalent to smoking.”
Whatever your take on the comparison between cigarettes and wine, the bottom line is that alcohol does increase cancer risk. Please drink responsibly.
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.