Research carried out in the US and published by the British Medical Journal only found the link in men who had smoked at some point in their lives, and not in those who had never been a smoker.
But even in women who had never smoked, the risk of alcohol-related cancers — mainly breast cancer — increased even after one alcoholic drink a day.
An accompanying editorial in the BMJ said people with a family history of cancer, particularly women with a family history of breast cancer, should consider reducing their alcohol intake to below the recommended limits.
Light or moderate drinking was classed as less than 15g (around one and a half units or just under two drinks) a day in women and 30g (three units or three or four drinks) and below in men.
The study of more than 88,000 women and 47,000 men aged over 30 found the median consumption of alcohol was 1.8g a day in women and 5.6g in men.
Kevin O’Hagan, cancer prevention manager at the Irish Cancer Society, said that the study confirmed the recent classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen.
“We do need to continually remind people that when it comes to cancer risk there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol drinking, and that alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer,” Mr O’Hagan said.
He added that, with six out of 10 Irish women now regularly drinking more than the recommended amount, it was “really important that women are made aware that drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk”.
“Evidence has shown that drinking one standard drink a day is associated with a 9% increase in the risk of a women developing breast cancer, while drinking three to six standard drinks a day increases the risk by 41%,” Mr O’Hagan said.
With 900 people diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers in Ireland and around 500 people dying from these diseases each year, Mr O’Hagan said it was essential people understood the risk alcohol poses to health.
Other findings from the BMJ study were that breast cancer was the leading alcohol-related cancer in women, while colorectal cancer was the major alcohol-associated cancer in men.
For alcohol-related cancers, increased frequency of drinking was associated with increased risk in men but not in women, whereas binge drinking was associated with increased risk in women but not in men.
The study, which was headed up by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, said it is estimated that alcohol consumption has caused 3.6% of all cancers worldwide — 1.7% in women and 5.2% in men.