Although widely available and legal to consume in most countries today, alcohol consumption still come with a significant amount of health risks, which consumers may not be fully aware of. Besides impairing motor coordination and cognitive skills when consumed in large amounts, risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks, according to the 2014 World Cancer Report (WCR), issued by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Since 1988 when IARC declared alcohol as a known carcinogen, global alcohol consumption has not decreased. In fact, more than 66 billion gallons of alcohol were consumed globally in 2017, an increase of 8.3 million gallons from 2016. Western Europe and Australia has the highest prevalence of drinking, while North Africa and the Middle East see the highest levels of alcohol abstinence. Save from Muslim-majority countries, alcohol has established and maintained an irreplaceable role in social engagements.
The World Health Organization Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 states, “Alcohol consumption has been identified as carcinogenic for the following cancer categories: cancer of the mouth, nasopharynx, other pharynx and oropharynx, laryngeal cancer, oesophageal cancer, colon and rectum cancer, liver cancer and female breast cancer. In addition, alcohol consumption is likely to cause pancreatic cancer. The higher the consumption, the greater the risk for these cancers, with consumption as low as one drink per day causing significantly increased risk for some cancers, such as female breast cancer.” The report concluded that no level of alcohol consumption is safe.
With this in mind, can “responsible drinking” truly be responsible? Can alcohol truly be part of a healthy diet? A previous study has shown that light drinking is associated with risk for oropharyngeal cancer, esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, and female breast cancer, but further studies need to be conducted to confirm these conclusions. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society also corroborated these findings, saying that alcohol is estimated to be the third-largest contributor to overall cancer deaths in both men and women.
A new global study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — one that could have changed America’s drinking habits — was intended to counter the WHO report and settle the age-old question on whether or not a drink a day can benefit one’s health and protect against heart attacks and stroke. The alcohol beverage industry seems keen on disproving these facts, so much so that “five large beer and liquor companies eventually agreed to pick up most of the $100 million tab for the 10-year-long randomized trial,” according to the New York Times.
In an email to an industry group in 2015, researchers seemed to have pinned the outcome as “showing that moderate drinking is safe.” Industry trade group officials and beer and liquor companies also exchanged ideas for the design of the trial to favor moderate alcohol consumption as an outcome. Among them, Danish beer company Carlsberg suggested setting up clinical trial centers in Russia, China and Denmark. The investigation also found that scientists were aware that the trial was designed to not be large enough to detect a rise in breast cancer in women or identify negative health effects. Having violated federal policy by appealing to the alcohol industry for funding, the study was shut down in June 2018.
Despite warnings from the scientific community, popular consensus still holds that moderate drinking is acceptable and does not present detrimental effects to one’s health. Presently, authorities around the world still struggle to curb other issues related to alcohol consumption, such as bootleg alcohol sales, drunk driving, underage drinking, and alcohol addiction, and trends like combining alcohol with caffeine or energy drinks, which can be more dangerous than alcohol on its own.
According to the United States Department of Transportation, 29 people in the U.S. die in alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes every day. Such cases often involve heavy fines and penalties, fees to consult with a DUI lawyer, premiums on auto insurance, and other harsh sanctions. Although the number has fallen by a third in the last three decades, drunk driving still claims more than 10,000 casualties a year, costing $44B in death and damage costs.
Deaths from alcohol poisoning are also exacerbated by a popular trend: mixing alcohol and caffeine. Caffeinated alcoholic drinks sold under the brand name Four Loko were linked to hospitalizations and underage drinking, prompting the Food and Drug Administration to issue warnings to Four Loko’s parent company and companies selling similar offerings. Multiple scientific reviews have also found that “consuming alcohol and energy drinks is associated with higher rates of binge drinking, engaging in risky sexual behavior, drunk driving, and requiring medical treatment than consuming alcohol alone.”
The American Society of Clinial Oncology has endorsed certain health strategies “to minimize excessive alcohol exposure in a way that could boost cancer prevention efforts.” These policy strategies include raising taxes, limiting hours of sale, and reducing youth exposure to alcohol marketing as a way of reducing high-risk drinking.