To Drink or Not to Drink: Alcohol is the Question.

When it comes to drinking alcohol, I must admit that I have very little experience. I gave it up at the age of 19 when I realized that there really was not enough time to party hardy and study enough to get into medical school. So, I cannot speak as one with firsthand knowledge of the benefits and penalties associated with regular daily alcohol consumption.

But, I am a doctor and this week I came across a research study that discusses the real downside to drinking. It is cancer. “…when it comes to cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe”[i] according to a recent report by the World Health Organization.[ii] No, this is not an urban legend conjured up by a wild eyed member of the WCTU[iii]. It is simply what medical science has to say about a habit of life that is growing in popularity among evangelicals.

I am old enough to have lots of stories about how we used to do things at church when I was a child. I will not inflict them on you.  I have watched in wonder at times as churches that I know used to preach against the evils of beverage alcohol, now allow that it is acceptable in moderation as long as one does not drink to drunkenness.  And, please do understand that I do not believe for a minute that the Bible prohibits drinking wine.

That however is not what I am here to tell you. No, the message today from medical science is that when comes to cancer there is no safe amount of alcohol for daily consumption. Drink any amount of alcohol in any form on a daily basis and you raise your risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon-rectum, liver and the female breast.[iv]  This is a causal relationship in that the alcohol and its metabolites cause cancer.

As one writer said, the best advice he could give was that if you drink daily it should be no more than 1.5oz of alcohol (one and a half beers, 7.5oz of wine, or one and a half mixed drinks containing 1oz of ethanol.) per day. Women should only have 1 ounce. If you do not drink alcohol, don’t start. Light or moderate drinking does not eliminate the risk. The risk for cancer is dose dependent so if you do drink, drink less or even better still, stop.

Alcoholic beverages contain 15 compounds that cause cancer including acetaldehyde, acrylamide, aflatoxins, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, ethyl carbamate, formaldehyde, lead and finally ethanol.[v] (That is alcohol for those who never suffered through organic chemistryJ)  The areas of the body at risk are those that come into contact with the alcohol first and in highest concentration and include the oral cavity and esophagus.

As a physician, I guess I would tell my friends who have been sitting on the sidelines of alcohol consumption to stay there. When first century Christians drank wine there were some compelling reasons that included the lack of safe drinking water. We have solved that problem with iron pipe, so the benefit of avoiding water borne disease does not exist in most parts of this country.

That leaves us with the risk, or rather the risks. Cancer is just one and if I had a bigger blog I could fill it with others.[vi] But, let’s leave it with cancer. In the 1960’s our nation came to grips with the idea that smoking caused cancer and has spent billions to convince us not to smoke. I think cancer is a good enough reason not to drink something that causes it. Maybe this is one of those, all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable moments that Paul wrote about. [vii]


[i] Rehm J, Shield K. Alcohol consumption. In: Stewart BW, Wild CB, eds. World Cancer Report 2014. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2014.

[ii] All of the factual information in this blog came from the following Medscape article. Medscape Oncology

No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS April 30, 2014

[iii] Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A noble organization that fought alcohol abuse and the devastating effects it had on women and children in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

[iv] Bagnardi V, Rota M, Botteri E, et al. Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis. Ann Oncol. 2013;24:301-308. Abstract

[v] Lachenmeier DW, Przbylski MC, Rehm J. Comparative risk assessment of carcinogens in alcoholic beverages using the margin of exposure approach. Int J Cancer. 2012;131:E995-E1003. Abstract

[vi] Renaud S, de Lorgeril M. Wine, alcohol, platelets, and the French paradox for coronary heart disease. Lancet. 1992;339:1523-1526. Abstract

[vii] 1Corinthians 6:12

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