DRINKING three bottles of wine a week is equivalent to smoking 23 cigarettes a week for women, in terms of increasing their lifetime risk of cancer, according to a new study.

It is the first time researchers have calculated the potential harm to health from alcohol in terms of what they dubbed the 'cigarette equivalent' measure.

Among non-smoking men, they found that drinking one bottle of wine a week was associated with an estimated 10 extra cases of cancer for every 1000 males during their lifetime.

For non-smoking women, it was 14 'extra' cases.

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Among men, alcohol was mostly associated with cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, and among women more than half the 'extra' cancer cases were breast cancer.

The authors' projections were based on an analysis of lifetime cancer risk data from Cancer Research UK, previously published data on the number of cancers in the population that can be attributed to tobacco and alcohol, and relative cancer risk data for moderate levels of alcohol and tobacco use.

They estimated that drinking three bottles of wine per week was equivalent to smoking roughly eight cigarettes per week for men and 23 cigarettes per week for women in terms of lifetime cancer risk, leading to an extra 19 cases of cancer for every 1,000 men and 36 for every 1000 women.

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The research, published today in the journal BMC Public Health, was carried out at University of Southampton and Bangor University.

Dr Theresa Hydes, lead author of the study, said: “We aimed to answer the question: Purely in terms of cancer risk – that is, looking at cancer in isolation from other harms – how many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?

"Our findings suggest that the ‘cigarette equivalent’ of a bottle of wine is five cigarettes for men and ten for women per week.”

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Dr Hydes added: “We must be absolutely clear that this study is not saying that drinking alcohol in moderation is in any way equivalent to smoking. Our finds relate to lifetime risk across the population.

"At an individual level, cancer risk represented by drinking or smoking will vary and for many individuals. The impact of ten units of alcohol (one bottle of wine) or five to ten cigarettes may be very different.”