Alcohol policies

In 2016, about 3,300 Canadians were diagnosed with alcohol-related cancer

Background and key statistics on alcohol consumption and cancer

Alcohol and cancer

  • Alcohol is one of the top three causes of cancer deaths globally.1
  • In 2016, about 3,300 Canadians were diagnosed with alcohol-related cancer.2
  • Alcohol is linked to several cancers including oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon, rectum, pancreas, lung, and prostate.3
  • Risk increases when alcohol is combined with tobacco use, unhealthy eating, and lack of physical activity.4

Relative risks by cancer type and alcohol intake (drinks per day)

Cancer risk increases among heavy and moderate drinkers; but even light drinkers are at risk.5

bar graph


Alcohol consumption in Canada

  • Nearly 80% of Canadians 15 years and over consume alcohol up to 9 litres per capita per year compared to the global average of 6 litres.6
  • Alcohol consumption patterns depend on jurisdiction, sex, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and Indigeneity.
  • Less alcohol consumption is better for reducing cancer risk.7
  • Different low-risk drinking guidelines exist:
    • The World Cancer Research Fund recommends abstinence.8
    • The Canadian Cancer Society recommends no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 for women.9
    • Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommends no more than 3 drinks a day for men and 2 for women.10

6 L per year is global average per capita and 9 L is Canadian per capita rate of alcohol consumption

Percentage of Canadians (aged 18+) who reported drinking in the past year, by jurisdiction – 2019

Between 73% and 84% of people in Canada reported drinking in the past year.

bar graph of reported drinking by province and territory


Public perceptions of alcohol and cancer

Most Canadians are not aware that alcohol can cause cancer. The more informed the public is, the more they support alcohol policies.

  • Heavy drinkers typically oppose alcohol policies, especially those that limit access and availability.
  • Public health education is needed to communicate risks and support implementation of alcohol policies.
  • Strong health messages, including warning labels, can shift drinking behaviours.11

McMaster Health Forum

In partnership with McMaster Health Forum, the Partnership commissioned a rapid synthesis on examining the costs and cost-effectiveness of policies for reducing alcohol consumption. This research informed this report on policy actions.


  • 1 - National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. 2018. Alcohol and cancer risk (fact sheet). Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet; World Cancer Research Fund. 2018. Alcoholic drinks and the risk of cancer. Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https://www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Alcoholic-Drinks.pdf.
    2 - How many cancer cases are due to alcohol - Canadian Cancer Society. www.cancer.ca. Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https://www.cancer.ca/ en/prevention-and-screening/reduce-cancer-risk/ make-healthy-choices/limit-alcohol/how-manycancer-cases-are-due-to-alcohol/?region=on.
    3 - Connor J. Alcohol consumption as a cause of cancer. Addiction. 2016;112(2):222-228
    4 - Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. 2018. Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causesprevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet.
    5 - Bagnardi V, Rota M, Botteri E, Tramacere I, Islami F, Fedirko V, Scotti L, Jenab M, Turati F, Pasquali E, Pelucchi C, Galeone C, Bellocco R, Negri E, Corrao G, Boffetta P, La Vecchia C. Alcohol consumption and sitespecific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis. Br J Cancer. 2015 Feb 3;112(3):580- 93. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.579. Epub 2014 Nov 25.
    6 - Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. 2018. Alcohol Consumption. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/alcohol-consumption
    7 - World Health Organization. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/gbd.
    8 - Limit alcohol consumption. World Cancer Research Fund. Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/recommendations/limit-alcohol-consumption.
    9 - Cancer and Alcohol. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; 2014. Cited 29 January 2021. Available from: https://ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-05/CCSA-Cancer-and-Alcohol-Summary-2014-en.pdf
    10 - Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. 2017. Canada's Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (poster). Cited 28 January 2021. Available from: https:// www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/2012-CanadaLow-Risk-Alcohol-Drinking-Guidelines-Poster-en.pdf.
    11 - Weerasinghe A, Schoueri-Mychasiw N, Vallance K, Stockwell T, Hammond D, McGavock J et al. Improving Knowledge that Alcohol Can Cause Cancer is Associated with Consumer Support for Alcohol Policies: Findings from a Real-World Alcohol Labelling Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(2):398.