Almost a third of a century after discovery of a link between alcohol consumption and certain types of cancer, scientists have reported the first human research evidence of how the popular beverage may be carcinogenic. As the human body metabolizes alcohol in beer, wine, and hard liquor, acetaldehyde is produced. Acetaldehyde attaches to DNA in humans in a way that results in the formation of a ‘DNA adduct’ that is linked to an increased risk of cancer. Most people have an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which quickly converts acetaldehyde to acetate, a relatively harmless substance. About thirty percent of people of Asian descent, however, (almost 1.6 billion people) have a variant of the alcohol dehydrogenase gene and are unable to metabolize alcohol to acetate. That genetic variant results in an elevated risk of esophageal cancer from alcohol drinking. Native Americans and native Alaskans have a deficiency in the production of that same enzyme. Study results were reported at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. (

The evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks increse the risk of a number of cancers is now stronger than it was in the mid-1990s (although modest amounts may have some protective cardiovascular benefits). There is convincing evidence that alcohol increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and breast (as well as colorectal cancer in men). Alcoholic drinks also probably increase the risk of colorectal cancer in women as well as liver cancer. (

A strong association exists between alcohol use and cancers of the esophagus, pharynx, and mouth, whereas a more controversial association links alcohol with liver, breast, and colorectal cancers. Cancer Facts and Figures. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 1993. (

Even a few drinks a week is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer in women. This risk may be especially high in women who do not get enough folate (a B vitamin) in their diet or through supplements. Alcohol can affect estrogen levels in the body, which may explain some of the increased risk. Drinking less alcohol may be an important way for many women to lower their risk of breast cancer. (

Alcohol (likely the ethanol component) is a known cause of several types of cancers (e.g., mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, breast, and maybe pancreas). The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. (

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