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Alcohol and obesity combine to raise cancer risk

New research by the Charles Perkins Centre in collaboration with Daffodil Centre shows alcohol consumption and obesity, together, raise the risk of developing cancer, above and beyond the impact of each risk factor individually.

The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, tracked 400,000 adults in the UK Biobank study over an average of 12 years.

Individual risk factors

The study measured participants’ alcohol consumption at baseline, along with three different markers of adiposity: body fat percentage, waist circumference and body mass index.

Alcohol consumption is known to cause cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colon, rectum, liver and breast, and is responsible for about 3500 cancer cases in Australia each year. Overweight and obesity is linked to 13 types of cancer, including oesophageal, stomach, bowel, liver, pancreatic and breast cancer, and has been attributed to about 5400 cancer cases in Australia each year.

Combined effects

By the end of the 12-year study period, 17,617 participants in the study had developed an alcohol-related cancer and 20,214 had developed an obesity-related cancer. For all three markers of adiposity, people who drank alcohol above the level recommended by UK guidelines, and who were in the top two overweight and obesity groups, had the highest risk of developing cancer overall. This elevated risk was above and beyond the effect of each risk factor individually.

The study found important evidence that excess body weight may exacerbate the harmful effect of alcohol on cancer risk, strengthening evidence for the importance of limiting consumption of alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight to reduce cancer risk. A future direction for research is to investigate how these two risk factors combined interact with tobacco smoking to influence cancer risk, given the well-established synergistic effect of smoking and alcohol consumption for increased risk of many of these cancer types.

Cancer Council and the Daffodil Centre support policy measures to reduce alcohol consumption and obesity as clinical and public health priorities aimed at lowering cancer risk. For alcohol consumption, this includes the consideration of evidence-based policies addressing alcohol pricing and taxation, consumer information and labelling of alcohol, and the marketing and promotion of alcohol. For overweight and obesity, this includes the consideration of evidence-based policies addressing unhealthy food marketing to children, front-of-pack food labelling, and taxation.


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