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Tobacco and alcohol and the risk of head and neck cancer


We carried out two case-control studies on the relative risk of head and neck cancer in association with tobacco and alcohol consumption. The first study carried out at the ENT Department of the University hospitals of Heidelberg and Giessen (FRG) comprised 200 male patients with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck and 800 control subjects matched for sex, age, and residential area (1:4 matching design). Of the tumour patients, 4.5% had never smoked, in contrast to 29.5% of the control group. The average tobacco and alcohol consumption of the patients was approximately twice as high as in the control subjects. The highest alcohol and tobacco consumption was observed in patients suffering from oropharyngeal cancer. Tobacco and alcohol increased the risk of head and neck cancer in a dose-dependent fashion and acted as independent risk factors. In heavy smokers (> 60 pack-years) a relative risk of 23.4 (alcohol adjusted) was calculated. Combined alcohol and tobacco consumption showed a synergistic effect. The risk ratio increased more in a multiplicative than in an additive manner. Oral and laryngeal cancer were associated with the highest tobacco-associated risk values. The highest ethanol-associated risk values were associated with oropharyngeal and laryngeal cancer. The second study was carried out at the ENT Department of the University of Heidelberg on 164 males with squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx and 656 control subjects matched for sex, age and residential area (1:4 matching design). Of the cases, 4.2% had never smoked, compared with 28.5% of the control subjects. The risk of laryngeal cancer by tobacco consumption was dose dependent, reaching a maximum value of 9.1 (adjusted for alcohol) for a consumption of more than 50 tobacco-years (TY). The relative risk of laryngeal cancer associated with alcohol intake was also dose dependent, reaching a value of 9.0 (adjusted for tobacco) for a mean daily consumption of more than 75 g alcohol. An analysis of subsite specific risks showed that heavy smokers (> 50 TY) carried a nearly ten times higher risk of supraglottic cancer than of glottic cancer. The risk of supraglottic cancer from alcohol consumption was also higher than that of glottic cancer.

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Maier, H., Dietz, A., Gewelke, U. et al. Tobacco and alcohol and the risk of head and neck cancer. Clin Investig 70, 320–327 (1992).

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Key words

  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Risk factors