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WHO/Europe and IARC warn of alcohol's cancer risk in joint statement to the European Parliament

06.11.2023 - In a pivotal address to the European Parliament, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, and Dr. Elisabete Weiderpass, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have delivered a stark warning about the carcinogenic risks of alcohol consumption. The IARC, a specialized agency of WHO focused on cancer research, has found compelling evidence linking alcohol to the development of several types of cancer.

Alcoholic beverages were classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the IARC in 1988, indicating a direct causal relationship with cancer in humans. This classification has been supported by findings from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, which have attributed the highest level of causal evidence to the link between alcohol consumption and cancer development.

In light of this evidence, the European Code Against Cancer—coordinated by the IARC—advises European citizens to limit alcohol intake or, better yet, abstain entirely for cancer prevention. Specifically, alcohol has been causally connected to cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colorectum, liver, and female breast.

The global cancer burden attributable to alcohol is significant, with more than 740,000 cancer cases in 2020 estimated to be caused by alcohol use, accounting for 4.1% of all new cancer cases. Europe alone was the source of almost a quarter of these cases.

Importantly, the relationship between alcohol use and cancer risk is dose-responsive: the more alcohol consumed, the greater the risk. There is currently no identified safe threshold for alcohol consumption concerning cancer risk, with evidence showing increased cancer risk even from light or moderate drinking.

The joint statement calls for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and related initiatives to unambiguously recognize the role of alcohol in cancer incidence and mortality, avoiding qualifiers like “harmful” or “heavy” drinking, or the term “responsible drinking,” which may be misleading. Public awareness campaigns, including health warning labels on alcoholic beverages as recommended by WHO/Europe’s Framework for Action on Alcohol and WHO’s Global Alcohol Action Plan, are crucial steps in informing the public about the health risks of alcohol consumption.

This declaration serves as a sobering reminder of the health risks associated with alcohol and an urgent call to action for policy-makers and public health officials across Europe.

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