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Joint Statement by WHO/Europe and IARC to the European Parliament

IARC is the specialized cancer agency of WHO, its main mission being to conduct research to enable effective cancer prevention. The IARC monographs programme identifies and evaluates the potential of agents to cause cancer. 

In 1988 alcoholic beverages were identified as a Group 1 carcinogen, with sufficient evidence that they cause cancer in humans. The Continuous Update Project of the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research has also attributed the highest level of causal evidence to the association between the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the development of cancer. 

Based on this convincing scientific evidence, the European Code Against Cancer, coordinated by IARC, provides a clear alcohol-related cancer prevention recommendation to European citizens. It states, “If you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake. Not drinking alcohol is better for cancer prevention.”

Cancers at the following sites have been causally linked to alcohol consumption: oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colorectum, liver and female breast. 

Overall, alcohol causes a substantial burden of cancer. Globally, more than 740 000 (95% uncertainty interval: 558 500–951 200) cancer cases in 2020 were estimated to be caused by alcohol use. This represented 4.1% (95% uncertainty interval: 3.1–5.3%) of all new cancer cases. Almost a quarter of all cancers caused by drinking alcohol worldwide were in Europe. 

There is a dose–response relationship between alcohol use and incidence of cancer: the higher the amount of alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of developing cancer. Current scientific evidence does not support the existence of a threshold at which the carcinogenic effects of alcohol start to manifest in the human body. 

There is also clear evidence of an increased risk of cancer from light or moderate alcohol drinking. As such, no safe amount of alcohol consumption for cancers can be established. 

Given that alcoholic beverages have been identified as carcinogenic for several cancer sites, and that even light drinking incurs an increased risk for cancer, the following conclusions should be considered for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and related initiatives.

  • The contribution of alcohol consumption to cancer incidence and mortality should be clearly recognized without the use of any qualifiers or misleading adjectives such as “harmful” or “heavy” consumption of alcohol or “responsible drinking”.
  • Measures should be taken to clearly inform the public of this risk, which is not well known among the general population, including enforcement of the dissemination of the European Code Against Cancer recommendations. WHO/Europe’s European Framework for Action on Alcohol 2022¬–2025 and WHO’s Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022–2030 both recommend the use of health warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers to inform the public about the health consequences of alcohol use.

Source : Who Health Organization