- A new study suggests that drinking one bottle of wine a week increases the risk of developing cancer as much as smoking 10 cigarettes for women, and five for men.
- Increasing this to three bottles of wine per week would mean an extra 36 out of 1,000 women and 19 out of 1,000 men would likely develop cancer over the course of their lifetime.
- The risk is higher for women than men because the alcohol causes an increased risk of breast cancer.
- The researchers hope their findings will help people make informed lifestyle choices, but they stress that the figures must be taken in context.
The health risks of smoking are common knowledge, particularly how it increases a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Less widely-known, however, is how drinking alcohol can also contribute to someone’s chances of contracting the disease.
So the findings of a new study may come as something of a shock to many: research suggests that drinking one bottle of wine is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes when it comes to cancer risk among women.
For men, drinking a bottle of wine increases lifetime cancer risk by as much as smoking five cigarettes.
The reason the risk is so much higher for women is that the alcohol causes an increased risk of breast cancer, according to the researchers.
The study was conducted by the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Bangor University, and the University of Southampton and published in BMC Public Health.
“Our study describes the percentage increase of the risk of cancer within the UK population associated with different levels of alcohol consumption, and is the only study to provide a ‘cigarette equivalent’ in terms of harm,” said lead study author Dr Theresa Hydes.
“We aimed to answer the question: Purely in terms of cancer risk – that is, looking at cancer in isolation from other harms – how many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?
“Our findings suggest that the ‘cigarette equivalent’ of a bottle of wine is five cigarettes for men and 10 for women per week.”
The researchers used lifetime cancer risk data from Cancer Research UK, previously published data on the number of cancers in the population that can be attributed to tobacco and alcohol, and relative cancer risk data for moderate levels of alcohol and tobacco use.
They estimated that if 1,000 non-smoking men and 1,000 non-smoking women each drank a bottle of wine per week over the course of their lifetime, around 10 extra men and 14 extra women would develop cancer at some point in their life.
For men, this was most likely to be cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, whereas in women, 55% of cases are associated with breast cancer.
And if the amount of wine consumed is increased to three bottles per week (about half a bottle per day), the figures rise to around 36 in 1,000 women and 19 in 1,000 men.
This equates to smoking roughly 23 cigarettes per week for women and eight for men.
But the researchers stress that their findings don’t mean having the occasional glass of wine has the same consequences as smoking.
“We must be absolutely clear that this study is not saying that drinking alcohol in moderation is in any way equivalent to smoking,” said Dr Hyde. “Our finds relate to lifetime risk across the population.
“At an individual level, cancer risk represented by drinking or smoking will vary and for many individuals, the impact of 10 units of alcohol (one bottle of wine) or five to 10 cigarettes may be very different.”
It’s also important to consider that while drinking one bottle of wine per week increases lifetime cancer risk for non-smokers by 1% in men and 1.4% in women (drinking three bottles results in 1.9% and 3.6% respectively), even outside of this study, overall lifetime cancer risk for both men and women in the UK is about 50%.
However, the researchers hope that their findings will help people make more informed choices.
“Our estimation of a cigarette equivalent for alcohol provides a useful measure for communicating possible cancer risks that exploits successful historical messaging on smoking,” said Dr Hydes.
“It is well established that heavy drinking is linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, gullet, bowel, liver, and breast. 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.”