Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, a global study has found.

Research hailed as the definitive study on the role alcohol and tobacco play in the development of cancer has found that a unit of alcohol drunk on a daily basis increases the risk of breast cancer by six per cent.

But veteran epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll, a co-author of the study, said moderate drinking should not be discouraged and that some newspaper reports could be seen as alarmist.

He told decanter.com that the six per cent increase in risk was six per cent of the overall lifetime risk of eight per cent, and that saying a glass of wine a day increased the risk by six per cent, while undoubtedly true, sounded ‘more worrying than it is,’ as the actual risk went up by less than half of one per cent.

Sir Richard stressed it was not his job to comment or advise, but said alcohol in moderation had definite health benefits in older age, and added, ‘We don’t want to discourage people from having one or two drinks a day.’

However, the statistics are incontrovertible. If women in Britain stopped drinking, 2000 deaths from breast cancer could be avoided, Valerie Beral of Cancer Research UK, which has acted as a central coordinating body for the study, said.

Professor Beral said factors such as remaining childless, having less children or not breastfeeding probably had a bigger effect on breast cancer, but as women are drinking more now than they used to, ‘it is bound to have an impact on the rates of breast cancer in the future.’

The UK government Department of Health advises that women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week – an average of two glasses a day.

The study by an Oxford University-based research group, published yesterday in the British Journal of Cancer, detailed results of 53 epidemiological studies involving 58,515 women with breast cancer and 95,067 without.

It also found that the risk of breast cancer is vastly overtaken by the risk of a heart attack in women over the age of 60, and alcohol in moderation is proven to have a protective affect against heart disease.

Separate research reported on decanter.com has found red wine in particular can help avoid heart attacks. It contains polyphenols which block production or natural chemicals which cause arteries to contract, a key cause of heart disease.

Jean Coussins, chief executive of the Portman Group, an alcohol industry organisation set up to promote sensible drinking said, ‘The research underlines the crucial importance of the Department of Health sensible drinking guidelines for young women. The government should be putting significant resources into a targetted public education campaign.’

Written by Adam Lechmere13 November 2002