The Health Impacts
Diseases linked to alcohol
The harmful use of alcohol causes a large disease, social and economic burden in societies.
Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions. Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence, major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases, as well as injuries resulting from violence and road clashes and collisions.
The latest causal relationships are those between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the incidence and course of HIV/AIDS. Alcohol consumption by an expectant mother may cause fetal alcohol syndrome and pre-term birth complications. (WHO Alcohol fact sheet 2018)
For most conditions in which alcohol is a factor, there is a dose-dependent relationship. That is, the more alcohol is consumed, the greater the risk of alcohol-related health harm.
There is no guaranteed safe level of alcohol consumption.
Government guidelines in Scotland and the UK recommend no more than 14 units per week to keep the risk of health damage low.
Alcohol and Cancer
In September 2022, SHAAP released our updated version of Alcohol & Cancer Risks: A Guide for Health Professionals. The new guidance points out that more than a quarter of alcohol-attributable deaths are due to cancer. Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing the following cancers of the: lip, oral cavity and pharynx; larynx; oesophagus; breast; colon and rectum; and the liver. There is also a relationship between alcohol and cancer of the stomach and there is some evidence that alcohol is associated with several other cancers, e.g. pancreatic cancer, lung cancer and melanoma. The guide points to emerging research that draws links between alcohol and tobacco use; and also presents evidence that drinking alcohol can interfere with recovery from cancer. The risks associated with cancer start from any level of regular drinking and rise with the amounts of alcohol being drunk. Information is provided for health staff to support their advice-giving on how to manage alcohol and reduce alcohol consumption. Recommendations are made for action to reduce alcohol consumption, both at the individual and population level:
- Amongst health professionals there needs to be an increased understanding of the relative risks of consuming alcohol.
- Low rates of awareness in public audiences may need information to be tailored to the specific needs of target groups.
- Understanding and communicating “risk” is as much a challenge for professionals as the general public.