Drink less to help prevent cancer


  • Ireland ranks fifth in the world for binge drinking.
  • Alcohol causes cancer and the more we drink the greater the risk.
  • 900 new cancers and 500 cancer deaths in Ireland are attributable to alcohol. One in eight breast cancers in Ireland are alcohol related.
  • One standard drink per day is associated with a 9% increased risk of developing breast cancer. Less is best, none is better (WHO)
  • Alcohol and smoking increase the risk further.


According to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2021:

  • 66% of people have consumed alcohol in the previous 6 months, with those aged 15-24 (70%) and men (68%) most likely to do so
  • 15% of the population (22% of drinkers) binge drink on a typical drinking occasion. This compares to 28% (37% of drinkers) in 2018


  • 37% of the population aged 15 and older drink alcohol at least once a week. This compares to 41% in the previous measurement in 2018.

How does alcohol impact your health?

Studies show that alcohol consumption not only has a detrimental effect on your overall health, but increases your risk of a wide variety of cancer.

These cancers include:

  • Mouth, head and neck cancers,
  • Throat (pharynx) cancer
  • Voice box (larynx) cancer
  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colon and rectum cancer
  • Breast cancer

To help reduce your risk, it has been recommended that you do not drink, but if you do, to reduce the amount you are drinking to ensure you stay within standard drinking guidelines.

If you reduce the number of drinks per day from four or more, to one or fewer drinks each day, you can reduce your chances of getting:

  • Liver cancer by 21%
  • Colorectal cancer by 31%
  • Breast cancer in women by 30%.

Aside from cancer, alcohol can also contribute to accidents and injuries, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and pancreatitis. Cutting down could help reduce the risk of these conditions as well.

Also, drinking less can help you:

  • Avoid hangovers
  • Save money
  • Sleep better
  • Cut out some ‘empty’ calories.

How does alcohol affect your body?

There are two main ways alcohol can have an impact on your health. 

  1. Cell Damage:

Alcohol can act as an irritant, especially in the mouth and throat. Cells that are damaged by the alcohol may try to repair themselves but these cells can repair incorrectly, which could lead to DNA changes that can be a step toward cancer.

Once in the body, alcohol can be converted into acetaldehyde, a chemical that can damage the DNA inside cells and has been shown to cause cancer.

Drinking alcohol can also lead to oxidative stress in cells, causing them to create more reactive oxygen species (chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen). These can lead to damage inside the cells that might increase the risk of cancer.

Alcohol and its by-products can also damage the liver, leading to inflammation and scarring (cirrhosis). As liver cells try to repair the damage, they can end up with mistakes in their DNA, which could lead to cancer. 

  1. Increase the impact of other harmful chemicals:

Alcohol may help other harmful chemicals, such as those in tobacco smoke, enter the cells lining the upper digestive tract more easily. This might explain why the combination of smoking and drinking is much more likely to cause cancers in the mouth or throat than smoking or drinking alone.

In other cases, alcohol may slow the body’s ability to break down and get rid of some harmful chemicals.

Alcohol guidelines

Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, whether they are beers, wines, liquors (distilled spirits), or other drinks. Alcoholic drinks contain different percentages of ethanol, but in general, a standard size drink of any type — 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor — contains about the same amount of ethanol (about half an ounce). Of course, larger or ‘stronger’ drinks can contain more ethanol than this.

Overall, the amount of alcohol someone drinks over time, not the type of alcoholic beverage, seems to be the most important factor in raising cancer risk. Most evidence suggests that it is the ethanol that increases the risk, not other things in the drink.

To reduce your risk of cancer, and to keep health risks to a minimum, women should drink no more than 11 standard drinks a week. Men should drink no more than 17 standard drinks a week.

Be aware of how many standard drinks are in your favourite drink. For example, there are two standard drinks in a pint.  And remember these drink guidelines are a limit, not a target.

These guidelines are intended for adults only. When considering these guidelines, it is important to remember that drinks should be spaced out over the week and should never be saved up to drink in one session. 

When it comes to alcohol and cancer, less is better. None is best.

What is a standard drink?

One standard drink of alcohol is:

  • A half pint of beer, lager or stout
  • One small glass of wine (100ml)
  • One measure of spirits.

As a rough guide, a standard drink contains about 10-12 grams of pure alcohol. However, some restaurants and bars serve larger drinks than the standard. Also, there are differences in the size and strength of a standard drink across European countries.

You should avoid alcohol:

  • During pregnancy
  • While breast-feeding
  • When trying for a baby.

How to cut back on alcohol

There are a number of easy things you can do to cut back on the amount of alcohol you drink

Drink slowly

Sip your drinks and wait until you've finished one before you order another

Go out later

Go out later and bring less money with you

Order smaller drinks

A glass rather than a bottle or pint, a single measure rather than a double

Avoid buying rounds

If you can't, buy yourself a non-alcoholic drink when it's your round

Use a standard measure

At home, use a standard measure for sprits, rather than pouring 'freehand'


Stick to low level guidelines for men and women and keep at least 2 days per week alcohol free

Keep track

There are lots of other simple ways to start cutting down. For many people, simply tracking how much you drink can be an eye opener – there are lots of free apps and tools available for your phone or tablet.

And if you’re drinking in a group, if you stay out of large rounds you won’t have to match anyone else’s pace. You can also more easily avoid being cajoled into having a drink that you don’t really want.

Learn more about how alcohol increases your risk of cancer here

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