Scraping the bottom of the bottle

Alcohol causes 3.5 percent of cancer deaths each year in the United States. This figure comes from a new report published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Of course, it made all kinds of headlines in the mainstream press. And got everyone hot and bothered–and maybe needing a stiff drink.

But before you give up your glass of red wine with dinner, consider this…

Something that causes 3.5 percent of cancer deaths is relatively paltry. In fact, the government–if we believe its figures–says smoking, diet, and even sun exposure cause more than 3.5 percent of cancer deaths. Much more.

In fact, if alcohol causes 3.5 percent of cancer deaths…that puts it down in the same “official” range as pesticides and pollutants. And that’s using the numbers the NCI will admit for pesticides and pollutants. Use the real numbers and you might find that alcohol causes fewer deaths than pesticides and pollutants.

But you certainly don’t see front-page news reports about avoiding pesticides and pollutants do you?

Back in 1978, researchers at the NCI performed a similar study. Researchers and government funding agencies like nothing better than to repeat the same studies over and over again. 

And back then, they got about the same results. That study showed that alcohol causes about 3 percent of cancer deaths. And that was 30 years ago. How many other causes of cancer–such as pollutants and pesticides–have skyrocketed since then?

By comparison, alcohol’s contribution to cancer has remained, predictably, pretty constant… and low.

We’ve actually known about the link between alcohol and cancer for decades. So it’s not really news at all. In fact, my late colleague at the NCI Dr. Arthur Schatzkin first noted the link between alcohol and breast cancer back in the 1980s. 

For men, drinking alcohol appears to raise their risk of cancers of the throat and esophagus. This accounts for about 6,000 deaths each year.

Ah, yes. The old oral cancer story. Except I thought the National Cancer Institute told us smoking is the cause of throat cancer.

Also, I wonder why these researchers didn’t mention the number of men with throat and oral cancers who are neither smokers nor drinkers. This figure has been increasing each decade for the past several decades.

And what about women…

The new report says alcohol causes 15 percent of breast cancer deaths in women. If so, that still leaves us all wondering. What causes the other 85 percent of breast cancer deaths?

According to what I found for my Ph.D. dissertation research in the 1980s, many factors contribute to breast cancer risk. These factors include: earlier age at menarche, later age at first pregnancy, fewer pregnancies carried to term, and lack of breastfeeding.

These are the real factors related to skyrocketing breast cancer rates–as I published in my Ph.D. dissertation research. But apparently, it is not politically correct to talk about them.

So–we’ve known about the alcohol-cancer link for decades. The rates haven’t changed much in 30 years. So, aside from the next generation of science bureaucrats trying to make headlines to help their careers, the real question for the National Cancer Institute is…what else causes these diseases?

Heaven knows, we have already been told that excess smoking and alcohol cause diseases.

What do they have to say to all the non-smoking, moderate-drinking people who are still getting sick–more than ever, according to other government-funded studies.

Can’t they think of anything else? After all those hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent searching for the causes of diseases?

A generation ago, all the behavioral science bureaucrats seized on smoking cessation and prevention as the agenda to fuel and fund their lifetime government careers. And they rode that horse all the way to retirement. Taxpayer funded, of course. Meanwhile, chronic disease has continued to climb anyway.

And now–it seems as though this new generation of bureaucrats is looking for a new horse to ride. But they’ve set their sights on a tired, old one–alcohol. Actually, it’s more like a pony given its relatively puny contribution to cancer today. Maybe they should all be put out to pasture?

According to the study author, Dr. David Nelson, “alcohol is a cancer-causing agent that’s in plain sight, but people just don’t see it.” Dr. Nelson is director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the NCI.

He also told HealthDay news, “The best thing people who believe they are at risk for cancer can do is reduce their alcohol consumption.” 


That’s the BEST thing I can do?

But wait. I thought the best thing I could do was to quit smoking. I mean, cut out saturated fats. I mean, cut calories. Or stay out of the sun.

Well, when science no longer suffices, find another horse to ride. Right, Dr. Nelson?

To be fair, Dr. Nelson doesn’t ignore all the science relating to drinking alcohol. He does admit the possible heart benefits of moderate drinking. But begrudgingly.

He told HealthDay news, “in the broader context of all the issues and all the problems that alcohol is related to, alcohol causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents.”

And that’s just not true.

And although they may not recognize it at the NCI, heart disease remains a bigger problem than cancer in the U.S. And that problem is getting worse. In fact, heart disease in the U.S. is already much worse than in 16 other comparable nations.

We tried Prohibition in the U.S. during the 1920s. And that failed miserably. Before that, the Puritans tried it when they controlled England for a decade in the 1650s. The Puritans, that is, who had not already left for Massachusetts. They kept things dry for just the one decade they controlled England in its thousand-year history. And that time, it didn’t stick either.

Maybe the third time’s a charm. Some like Dr. Nelson would like to see everyone cut it out altogether.

And this would certainly be the right administration in Washington to give Prohibition another try. Maybe we could start with a government pilot study in New York City under America’s nanny mayor. You can just see another Presidential Medal of “Freedom” coming for the genius who dreams up the “science” to justify another go at Prohibition.

1. David Nelson, M.D., M.P.H., director, Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, U.S. National Cancer Institute; Susan Gapstur, Ph.D., M.P.H., vice president of epidemiology, American Cancer Society; Feb. 14, 2013, American Journal of Public Health, online