Drinking in Teens and 20’s Increases Cancer Risk

European Action on Alcohol Week runs from 20 – 24 November

  • Around 900 people are diagnosed with an alcohol-associated cancer each year in Ireland.
  • Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing cancer. Drink less to reduce your risk.

 This year’s European Action on Alcohol awareness week takes place from 20 – 24 November, with a focus on ‘Alcohol and Cancer’. The HSE is highlighting the campaign in Ireland and recommending that people visit www.askaboutalcohol.ie  to find out more about reducing your risk of developing cancer.

Every year in Ireland, approximately 900 people are newly diagnosed with alcohol related cancer. Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer including mouth, larynx , throat, oesophagus, breast, liver and bowel and is listed by the World Health Organisation as a Group 1 carcinogen along with tobacco, asbestos and HPV. The cancer risks from alcohol are real. However, there is robust evidence which shows that over one third of cancers could be prevented through lifestyle modification.

This year’s awareness week highlights the link between drinking habits early in life and long term risk of developing cancer. Many young people don’t realise that drinking in your teens and 20’s increases your cancer risk. Just as smoking does not cause lung cancer overnight, drinking in your teens and twenties does not result in a diagnosis of cancer immediately, but it certainly increases the risk 10-20 years later. The campaign highlights the fact that for younger people, what they drink now has an effect on their cancer risk sooner than they may think. Quarter of women who developed breast cancer were under 55, and half of mouth, head and neck cancers are diagnosed in those aged between 50-64years.

Dr Marie Laffoy, Assistant National Director, HSE National Cancer Control Programme says, “We have known for some time that drinking alcohol regularly increases the risk of developing some types of cancer but this evidence means it’s important to get the message out to young people that what they drink now effects their cancer risk in the future. Drinking regularly in your teens and 20’s does have an effect long term and this isn’t something you can ignore until you are in your 50’s and worry about it then. The positive news is that this is something every individual has the power to control – the less we drink, the lower the risk of developing these cancers.

Women in their teens and 20’s who drink regularly increase their risk of developing breast cancer by 34%. The Healthy Ireland 2016 survey reported that just 16% of 15-24 year old women were aware of the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer (1 in 8 breast cancers are caused by alcohol). What even less will be aware of is that the risk of breast cancer risk is greater among women who start drinking prior to their first pregnancy. Even low levels of alcohol consumption (just over 1 drink per day) can increase a woman’s risk.

In Irish men, alcohol poses the greatest risk for mouth, head and neck cancers. Those who drink two or more standard drinks per day are three times more likely to be diagnosed in their lifetime with these cancers compared with those who do not drink.  Over half mouth, head and neck cancers diagnosed in Ireland can be associated with alcohol. For men and women who drink alcohol throughout their lifetime, there is a 49% increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Research shows no significant difference depending on the type of drink. Whatever the type of alcohol consumed, the effects are the same. Drinking less reduces the risk of cancer.

For more information on a low risk approach to alcohol visit  askaboutalcohol.ie. The website has features that can help you to assess your drinking including a drinks calculator and self-assessment tool.  The website also provides information for people who are worried about their own drinking, or worried about someone close to them, and has a service finder to help connect people to support and services.