Is drinking a bottle of wine really equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes?
It is if you are a woman. At least, that is the conclusion researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, came to in an article published in the journal BMC Public Health.
The authors behind the study say they have calculated the increased absolute lifetime risk of alcohol-related cancers associated with a weekly bottle of wine and compared it to the increased absolute cancer risk associated with a 10-cigarettes-a-week habit.
Men do a little better. For them, a bottle of wine is equivalent to five cigarettes.
Using data collected by Cancer Research UK, the team calculated the increased absolute lifetime cancer risk for non-smokers associated with a bottle of wine per week. For women, that increase was 1.4 percent. For men, the figure is 1 percent. Breast cancer appears to be a particular risk concern for alcohol-drinking women, whereas drinking is linked to cancers in the liver and gastrointestinal tract in men.
While no one is arguing that excessive drinking is good for you, there are some important limitations to the study.
David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, who was not involved in the study, points out that the overall health impact of moderate drinking “is still contested”.
At the same time, John Britton, Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, explains, we know smokers are putting themselves at risk of a range of other serious ailments not considered by the study – for example, cardiovascular disease.
“I’m not sure this study adds much that is useful,” he added.
Jane Green, the Co-Director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, says it’s all about “context”. After all, 1 percent or so might not seem so startling when you consider lifetime risk for men and women in the UK already stands at 50 percent.
“The average UK drinker reports drinking the equivalent of about a bottle and a half of wine a week, and the average smoker smokes about 10 cigarettes a day, or 70 a week,” she explained.
“This work confirms that for most smokers, their smoking carries much greater risks for cancer than does alcohol for most drinkers.”
Still, the study there are some important take-aways.
“It is likely that the findings from this simple study will have a profound effect on the way that drinkers, and in particular female drinkers, regard the risks associated with alcohol consumption,” said Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Surrey, pointing out that the risks increase disproportionally for heavier drinkers, with three bottles a week equating to eight cigarettes a week for men but 23 cigarettes a week for women.
“Viewing alcohol drinking in the same light as cigarette smoking may well result in a decrease in consumption and its related harms.”