Press release – Alcohol consumption contributes to cancer, even in moderate drinkers: Otago study

The University of Otago released the following press report based on Prof Jennie Connor’s work on Monday, 27 June 2016.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of several types of cancer, and was responsible for 236 cancer deaths under 80 years of age in New Zealand in 2012, according to a new study at the University of Otago.

The research, in collaboration with the Global Burden of Disease Alcohol Group, and just published in the international journal Drug and Alcohol Review, builds on previous work that identified 30 per cent of all alcohol-attributable deaths in New Zealand to be due to cancer, more than all other chronic diseases combined.

The study uses evidence that alcohol causes some types of cancer after combining dozens of large studies conducted internationally over several decades. The cancers that are known to be causally related to alcohol include two of the most common causes of cancer death in New Zealand, breast and bowel cancer, but also cancer of the mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, larynx and liver. This New Zealand study estimated mortality for 2007 and 2012.

Lead author, Professor Jennie Connor of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago Medical School, said the findings about breast cancer were particularly sobering.

“About 60 per cent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in New Zealand women are from breast cancer. We estimated 71 breast cancer deaths in 2007 and 65 in 2012 were due to drinking, and about a third of these were associated with drinking less than two drinks a day on average. Although risk of cancer is much higher in heavy drinkers there are fewer of them, and many alcohol-related breast cancers occur in women who are drinking at levels that are currently considered acceptable,” Professor Connor says.

“There was little difference between men and women in the number of cancer deaths due to alcohol, even though men drink much more heavily than women, because breast cancer deaths balanced higher numbers of deaths in men from other cancer types.”

She adds: “These premature deaths from cancer resulted in an average 10.4 years of life lost per person affected, with more loss of life among Māori than non-Māori, and for breast cancer compared with other cancers.”

“While these alcohol-attributable cancer deaths are only 4.2 per cent of all cancer deaths under 80, what makes them so significant is that we know how to avoid them,” explains Professor Connor.

“Individual decisions to reduce alcohol consumption will reduce risk in those people, but reduction in alcohol consumption across the population will bring down the incidence of these cancers much more substantially, and provide many other health benefits as well.

“Our findings strongly support the use of population-level strategies to reduce consumption because, apart from the heaviest drinkers, people likely to develop cancer from their exposure to alcohol cannot be identified, and there is no level of drinking under which an increased risk of cancer can be avoided.

“We hope that better understanding of the relationship of alcohol with cancer will help drinkers accept that the current unrestrained patterns of drinking need to change.”

Connor JL, Kydd R, Maclennan B, Shield K, Rehm J. Alcohol-attributable cancer deaths under 80 years of age in New Zealand. Drug and Alcohol Review 2016 DOI: 10.1111/dar.12443



1. In 1988, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Cancer Research scheduled alcohol (ethyl alcohol, ethanol) as a Group 1 carcinogen – an agent for which there is sufficient evidence to assert it directly causes cancer

2. The degree of public awareness about the link between alcohol and cancer in New Zealanders is not known. In Canada, public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer has slowly increased from 21% in 1996 to 36% in 2012, and education level did not predict awareness of the link.

3. A key mechanism by which alcohol causes cancer involves the major metabolite of ethanol called acetaldehyde. Ethanol is broken down to acetaldehyde in the body and acetaldehyde reacts with primary amines to produce crotonaldehyde. Crotonaldehyde in turn can directly cause mutations in DNA and thus initiate cancer.

4. There are about 240 cancer deaths in New Zealand every year attributable to alcohol, of which about half are in men and about half in women.

5. The cancers for which the strongest evidence exists of causation from alcohol are cancers of the mouth, throat, voice-box, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast. Other cancers for which the evidence is accumulating include prostate, pancreas, skin (melanoma), and stomach. Bowel and breast cancer are two of the most common causes of cancer death in New Zealand.

6. Breast cancer is the leading cause of alcohol-attributable deaths in New Zealand women (both Māori and non-Māori). Increasing alcohol consumption from one to two standard drinks a day increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 10%.

7. Although risk of cancer increases with the average amount of alcohol consumed, alcohol-related cancers also occur in people who do not drink at high levels

8. The less alcohol consumed, the lower the risk of cancer. There is no safe threshold.

9. A whole of population strategy to reduce alcohol consumption is required to reduce alcohol-related cancers (and other alcohol-related harm).

10. Since 1975, publications sponsored by the World Health Organisation have provided overviews of research into the most effective measures a society can use to reduce its consumption of alcohol and thus reduce alcohol-related problems.

11. This body of research has been summarized as the 5+ Solution, which involves reforms of marketing, pricing, accessibility, age of purchase, and drink-driving counter-measures; plus providing increased treatment opportunities for heavy drinkers.

12. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a trade agreement being negotiated in secret which benefits big business including global alcohol corporations. The TPPA would give corporations greater influence over adoption of policies such as the 5+ Solution, as they would be able to take the NZ government to an international tribunal to recoup any lost profit that resulted.

Regional Meetings 2016

Meeting presentation:

AANZ – Regional Meetings Powerpoint Show – Prof Jennie Connor, Dunedin & Prof Doug Sellman, Christchurch


Posters advertising meetings (three versions for each region):

Poster 1 New Plymouth

Poster 2 New Plymouth

Poster 3 New Plymouth

Poster 1 Tauranga

Poster 2 Tauranga

Poster 3 Tauranga

Poster 1 Napier

Poster 2 Napier

Poster 3 Napier

Poster 1 Palmerston North

Poster 2 Palmerston North

Poster 3 Palmerston North

Poster 1 Timaru

Poster 2 Timaru

Poster 3 Timaru

Poster 1 Nelson

Poster 2 Nelson

Poster 3 Nelson


Alcohol & Cancer Conference 2015

Hosted by Alcohol Action NZ and Cancer Society of NZ, Te Papa 17 June 2015

Conference Presentations:

Cancer-deaths-attributable-to-alcohol-in-New-Zealanders-under-80 –  Prof Jennie Connor, Dunedin

Biological aspects – Dr Jeff Upton, Christchurch

Clinical aspects – Dr Chris Jackson, Dunedin (currently unavailable)

Epidemiological aspects – Prof Ann Richardson, Christchurch

Community response – Jane Martin, Melbourne

National response – The 5+ Solution: Has It Been Enacted in New Zealand Yet?  If Not, Why Not? – Prof Doug Sellman, Christchurch

International response – Implications of the TPPA for Alcohol Policy in Aotearoa NZ – Prof Jane Kelsey, Auckland

Alcohol & Cancer Conference Programme


Flaunting it on Facebook: Young adults, drinking cultures and the cult of celebrity – research report March 2014

This final report is the result of a three year research project funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand on young adults’ drinking cultures and social networking in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The team is made up of an international multidisciplinary team of primary researchers, PhD and postgraduate students. The report can be easily downloaded from the Massey University website.


Action on Alcohol: Change is Coming Conference 2014

Presentations from Action on Alcohol: Change is Coming the 5th annual Alcohol Action conference held at Te Papa, Wellington, on Thursday 20 March 2014:

Opening Address -Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Change is Coming – But Not One Person at a Time – Professor Kypros Kypri, New South Wales

Change is Coming – Stocktake of Change So Far – Professor Jennie Connor, Dunedin

Change is Coming – Culture Change Comes From Policy Change –Dr Peter Miller, Victoria

Change is Coming – Will Local Alcohol Policies be Part of It –Rebecca Williams, Alcohol Healthwatch, New Zealand

Change is Coming – Call for Action –Professor Jennie Connor, Dunedin

Change is Coming – How to Make it Happen –Professor Mike Daube, Western Australia

Further information on the keynote speakers is available from the conference booklet.


The Perils of Alcohol Marketing Conference 2013

Held at Te Papa on 7 March 2013, this 4th Alcohol Action annual conference specifically addressed concerns regarding alcohol marketing. Conference presentations can be viewed via the Alcohol Healthwatch website  as follows:

Video 1 – Introductory Comments – Dr Geoff Robinson, Alcohol Action NZ

Video 2 – Alcohol Harms – Prof Jennie Connor, University of Otago

Video 3 – Responsible Alcohol Marketing: A Public Health Oxymoron? – Prof Janet Hoek, University of Otago

Video 4 – Where Would Alcohol Companies be without Alcohol Marketing? – Prof Sally Casswell, Massey University

Video 5 – Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship: Young People Need a Sporting Chance – Dr Kerry O’Brien, Monash University, Australia

Video 6 – The Culture of Intoxication: Young Adults, Social Networking and Alcohol Marketing – Assoc Prof Antonia Lyons, Massey University

Presentations Available for Downloading

• Alcohol Harms (7MB)
• Responsible Alcohol Marketing: A Public Health Oxymoron? (0.8MB)
• The Culture of Intoxication: Young Adults, Social Networking and Alcohol Marketing (3.6MB)

Babies, Children & Alcohol Conference 2012

Slide presentations from the third annual Alcohol Action NZ conference Babies, Children and Alcohol:


Useful links

References to information cited on this website

32 References to information cited in the Pamphlet Ten Things the Alcohol Industry Won’t Tell You About Alcohol