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As little as two alcoholic drinks a day elevates the risk of breast cancer in women, new University of Otago research shows.
The research shows increased risk of several cancer types, but the breast cancer findings were particularly worrying, lead author Prof Jennie Connor said.
"We estimated 71 breast cancer deaths in 2007 and 65 in 2012 were due to drinking, and about a third of these were associated with drinking less than two drinks a day on average.
"Although risk of cancer is much higher in heavy drinkers, there are fewer of them, and many alcohol-related breast cancers occur in women who are drinking at levels that are currently considered acceptable,'' Prof Connor says.
The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.
In 2012, alcohol was responsible for 236 cancer deaths in people younger than 80 in New Zealand, the research found.
The findings built on previous work that identified 30% of alcohol-attributable deaths in New Zealand were due to cancer, more than all other chronic diseases combined.
Cancers that are known to be causally related to alcohol include those of the breast, bowel, mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, larynx and liver.
"There was little difference between men and women in the number of cancer deaths due to alcohol, even though men drink much more heavily than women, because breast cancer deaths balanced higher numbers of deaths in men from other cancer types.
"These premature deaths from cancer resulted in an average 10.4 years of life lost per person affected, with more loss of life among Maori than non-Maori, and for breast cancer compared with other cancers.
"While these alcohol-attributable cancer deaths are only 4.2% of all cancer deaths under 80, what makes them so significant is that we know how to avoid them,'' Prof Connor said.
Seeking comment, the Otago Daily Times contacted brewing giant Lion, where a spokeswoman suggested the newspaper contact right-wing think-tank The New Zealand Initiative.
Initiative head of research Dr Eric Crampton said people who cut their alcohol consumption risked losing potential benefits. Dr Crampton said he accepted moderate alcohol consumption was a cancer risk.
"But moderate consumption of alcohol also has offsetting health benefits in other areas.
"And so more interesting work looks at the effects of alcohol consumption on overall mortality risk.
"It would be a shame if health-conscious people switched from a drink a day to abstinence, fearing the cancer risk, and wound up at higher overall risk from heart disease, because of it,'' Dr Crampton said.
Spirits New Zealand chief executive Robert Brewer said the research was based on "flawed'' assumptions.
"Death statistics, by themselves, say nothing of the drinking patterns and other risk factors in individuals who died of cancer,'' he said.
•Research demonstrates link between moderate alcohol use and cancer.
•Breast cancer findings particularly worrying.71 breast cancer deaths in 2007 and 65 in 2012 were due to drinking.
•Alcohol industry playing down the findings.