New Study Determines Exact Level of Drinking that Leads to Liver Cancer

Consuming three alcoholic drinks a day can be enough to cause liver cancer, experts have said.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has pinpointed the level of drinking implicated in liver cancer after undertaking what it says was the biggest review so far of the evidence on the relationship between diet, weight, physical activity and the disease.

Its assessment of 34 previous studies covering 8.2 million people, more than 24,500 of whom had liver cancer, revealed “strong evidence” linking intake of three drinks a day to the disease. 

“Around three or more drinks per day can be enough to cause liver cancer,” said Amanda Mclean, director of the charity’s UK branch. “Until now we were uncertain about the amount of alcohol likely to lead to liver cancer. But the research reviewed in this report is strong enough, for the first time, to be more specific about this.”

The WCRF’s findings prompted the Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition of health organisations, to claim that alcohol is so toxic that cans and bottles should carry health warnings.

“Alcohol, like tobacco and asbestos, is a class 1 carcinogen and it is totally unacceptable that the public is not provided with such basic information”, said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, the alliance’s chair. 

“This report shows that there is no safe level of drinking when it comes to cancer prevention. It’s time for the government to take action to minimise the risk of harm, including ensuring that labels carry mandatory health warnings and lists of ingredients to standards that are developed independently from groups with vested interests.”

About one in 100 men and one in 200 women in Britain develop liver cancer at some point in their lifetime, and 4,703 people were diagnosed with it in 2012. It has one of the lowest survival rates among the 200 different types of cancer. 

Women should try to limit themselves to no more than one drink a day and men to two in order to minimise their risk of the disease, the WCRF said. 

Dr Sarah Jarvis, a medical adviser to the drinks industry-funded education group Drinkaware, said: “To help reduce the risk of getting alcohol-related liver cancer, it’s best to drink within the lower-risk guidelines of 2-3 units a day for women – that’s a 175ml glass of 13% wine – or 3-4 units a day for men – a pint and a half of 4% beer.”

The report also pinpoints obesity as a risk factor for liver cancer. Almost one in four (24%) cases of the disease in the UK could be prevented if people kept to a normal weight and did not drink, it estimates. Liver cancer is now the tenth type of cancer that evidence has linked to excess weight. 

The WCRF’s analysis also found strong evidence that coffee could help protect against liver cancer, though it did not specify the amounts someone needs to drink. It has previously linked coffee to a reduced risk of womb cancer. 

Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemialogy at Cambridge University, cast doubt on the WCRF’s findings. “I do not think that the published data are sufficiently robust to conclude that three drinks a day specifically is associated with an increased risk of primary liver cancer,” he said.

Two European studies among the 34 the WCRF examined showed that people consuming between one and three drinks a day were running no increased risk of liver cancer, but both found evidence that four or more drinks a day does worsen the chances of getting it, Pharoah added. 

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