Alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer type in the WHO European Region, with 1579 women diagnosed every day. Alcohol consumption is one of the major modifiable risk factors for the disease, causing 7 of every 100 new breast cancer cases in the Region. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, WHO encourages everyone to understand that the risk of breast cancer can be significantly reduced by simply reducing alcohol consumption.

Alcohol: the cause of nearly 40 000 new breast cancer cases

The WHO European Region has the highest rate of new breast cancer diagnoses compared to any of the other WHO regions. According to estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in 2020 alcohol consumption was responsible for almost 40 000 new breast cancer cases in the Region.

The same data show that breast cancer has become the most common cancer globally. More than 2 million new cases were estimated in 2020, and about 100 000 of these were attributable to alcohol consumption.

“Many people, including women, are not aware that breast cancer is the most common cancer caused by alcohol among women globally. People need to know that by reducing alcohol consumption they can reduce their risk of getting cancer. It doesn’t matter what type, quality or price alcohol is,” says Dr Marilys Corbex, Senior Technical Officer for Noncommunicable Diseases at WHO/Europe.

How to prevent alcohol-related breast cancer risks

Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by IARC. It is causally linked to 7 types of cancer. Besides female breast cancer, it increases the risk of developing oral cavity (mouth), pharynx (throat), oesophagus (gullet), liver, larynx (voice box) and colorectum (large intestine and rectum) cancers.

There is no safe level of alcohol consumption. The risk of breast cancer increases with each unit of alcohol consumed per day. More than 10% of alcohol-attributable cancer cases in the Region arise from drinking just 1 bottle of beer (500 ml) or 2 small glasses of wine (100 ml each) every day. For breast cancer, this is even higher: 1 in 4 alcohol-attributable breast cancer cases in the Region is caused by this amount.

“Simply put, alcohol is toxic. It harms every organ while it passes through the body,” says Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Acting Director for Noncommunicable Diseases and Programme Manager for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at WHO/Europe. “So, it makes perfect sense to limit the amount of consumed alcohol, to find ways to replace alcohol with other beverages and to adopt nationwide policies that help to reduce alcohol consumption.”

Reducing alcohol harm in the Region

WHO recommends the following best-buy policies as cost-effective ways to reduce alcohol consumption levels and bring down the number of cancer cases caused by alcohol use:

  • making alcohol less affordable (for example, by increasing excise taxes)

  • banning or restricting alcohol marketing across all types of media

  • reducing alcohol availability (for example, by regulating sale hours).

WHO also strongly recommends that all countries of the Region place health warnings on the labels of alcoholic beverages so consumers can easily make a good decision while choosing what to drink.

The WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025 (EPW) and WHO/Europe’s United Action Against Cancer initiative aim to eliminate cancer as a life-threatening disease in the Region and beyond.


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