There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol causes 7 types of cancer including bowel, breast, mouth and pharynx, liver, larynx and stomach cancer.
It is estimated that in Australia alcohol consumption causes around 3,500 cancer cases each year.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified alcoholic drinks as a Group 1 Carcinogen, this is the highest classification available and means alcohol consumption is a cause of cancer.
When it comes to cancer risk there is no safe level of drinking. Even drinking moderate amounts of alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the bowel, breast, mouth and pharynx, liver, larynx and stomach cancer. The more you drink and the longer you have been drinking, the greater the risk. Your risk of cancer is the same for all types of alcohol consumed, including beer, wine and spirits.
What is a safe level of alcohol?
When it comes to cancer risk there is no safe level of drinking. The link between alcohol consumption is dose dependent. Whilst even light levels of consumption are associated with cancer risk, the risk increases the more you drink.
Cancer Council SA recommends people avoid or limit alcohol consumption.
If you choose to drink, follow the National Health and Medical Research guidelines:
To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol related harm. For some people not drinking at all is the safest option.
What is a standard drink?
One standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, however, the number of standard drinks in a typical serving of an alcoholic beverage varies between type of drink, size and brand.
In Australia, all bottles, cans and casks of alcohol packaged for sale are required by law to state on the label the approximate number of standard drinks contained. However, if you are buying or pouring a drink in a glass, a standard drink can be harder to determine. Be careful of the size of the glass that the alcohol is served in, and don’t assume that your glass holds one standard drink.
The following are examples of one standard drink:
- 220–250 ml alcopop/alcoholic soda (⅔ bottle)
- 100 ml wine (1 bottle = 7 standard drinks)
- 60 ml (2 nips) of sherry
- 30 ml (1 nip) of spirits
- 425 ml (1 South Australian ‘pint’) of light beer
- 285 ml (1 South Australian ‘schooner’) of full-strength/regular beer or cider
Tips to reduce alcohol consumption
- Choose a non-alcoholic drink such as sparkling water with fresh lemon or lime
- Limit alcohol to special occasions and avoid binge drinking
- Use water to quench thirst
- Opt for low-alcohol drinks, or dilute alcoholic drinks with sparkling water or juice
- Choose a mocktail instead- but be cautious of mixers as they can be high in calories
- Set yourself a limit and stop once you have reached it
- Have alcohol free days each week
- Order beer and cider in a smaller glass e.g. a South Australian ‘schooner’ or ‘butcher’ rather than a pint
- Alternate alcohol drinks with non-alcoholic drinks, such as sparkling water
- Find alternative ways outside of pubs to catch up with friends e.g. go for coffee instead, organise a walk, tennis or cricket match
How does alcohol cause cancer?
There is more research to be done to determine the exact mechanisms in which alcohol causes cancer, however there are several possible reasons:
- Alcohol is broken down into compounds when it is digested. Some of these compounds can cause cancer.
- Alcohol drinks contain ethanol which irritates cells in the body. Over a long period of time this irritation can lead to cancer, particularly cancers of the mouth and throat.
- Alcohol increases oestrogen circulating in the body, a known risk factor for breast cancer.
- Alcohol damages the liver, known as cirrhosis, this is a risk factor for cancer.
Alcohol is also high in calories, and so too are some of the mixes added to alcoholic drinks e.g. soft drinks. Regular alcohol consumption can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight indirectly increasing cancer risk. Being above a healthy weight can increase your risk of 13 types of cancer. Learn more about weight and cancer risk here.
For health professionals
Alcohol consumption is estimated to be responsible for approximately nearly 3,500 cases seen in Australia each year.
Reducing alcohol consumption, in line with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol (Guidelines), lowers the risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Want to embed advice into routine care? Find out more here. Alcohol and increased cancer risk: A guide for health professionals.
Policy work on alcohol
Cancer Council Australia
- As Australia’s peak national non-government cancer control organisation, Cancer Council Australia advises the Australian Government and other bodies on practices and policies to help prevent, detect and treat cancer.
National Cancer Prevention Policy
Position statement: Alcohol and cancer risk
National Health and Medical Research Council
- The NHMRC provide guidelines to Australians in an aim to reduce the risk of harm from drinking alcohol. The guidelines are also intended to form the evidence base for future policy making and education materials.
Wilson LF, Antonsson A, Green AC, Jordan SJ, Bradley J, Kendall BJ, Nagle CM, Neale RE, Olsen CM, Webb PM, Whiteman DC. How many cancer cases and deaths are potentially preventable? Estimates for Australia in 2013. Int. J. Cancer: 2018; 142, 691–701.
National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: NHMRC, 2009.
International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, volume 100E. Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages. Lyon, France: IARC; 2012. Available from: https://monographs.iarc.fr/.
This webpage was last reviewed and updated in January 2021.