In October 2020, eight public health advocacy groups filed a petition urging the US Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to update the government health warning on alcoholic beverages. A perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine this September by Grummon and Hall advocates for updates to the required warning labels on alcoholic beverages, bringing the importance of this petition back to the forefront. The revised language is intended to promote knowledge of the risk between alcohol consumption and cancer, and reflects extensive research since the original label was instituted suggesting alcohol’s carcinogenic effect. While no such modification has yet been made, this change may save thousands of lives annually and impact the incidence of breast and colorectal cancers.

According to the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, breast and colorectal cancers are common cancers whose risk increases as alcohol consumption increases. This dose-dependent relationship suggests that individuals who are more prone to consuming copious amounts of alcohol, such as those who binge drink or those with alcohol use disorder, are at a heightened risk of these cancer types.

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Alcohol consumption in the US is pervasive. According to GlobalData, the total monthly prevalence of binge drinking will approximate 72.52 million individuals in the US during 2022, while the total 12-month prevalence of alcohol use disorder will impact roughly 38.62 million individuals during this period. Given that these figures are anticipated to grow through 2028, and with increases in drinking behaviour over the last few years due to the pandemic, an increasing number of individuals will be at risk for developing these types of cancers without mitigation.

Although alcohol intake is, fortunately, a modifiable behaviour, many individuals in the US are unaware of the relationship between alcohol intake and cancer risk. A recent survey of American adults published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine by Seidenberg and colleagues revealed that nearly 70% of individuals did not know alcohol was linked to cancer. Therefore, it is imperative to raise awareness so that individuals can better weigh their risks when deciding when to drink and how much. This is particularly relevant for breast and colorectal cancers, where, according to GlobalData, diagnosed incident cases are expected to near 277,000 and 141,000 respectively this year, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that thousands of US deaths from these cancers are attributable to alcohol use every year.

Adding a warning to all liquor products could be an effective way to raise awareness and decrease alcohol consumption. Further, given the dose-dependent relationship between alcohol and cancer risk, it is likely that the messaging could prevent many individuals from developing these cancers and also save many lives.