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Any alcohol consumption is harmful, claim experts

Health risks outweigh benefits of drinking alcohol, says study

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 24 August 2018

There is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption, concludes a large study* published today in The Lancet.

Researchers concluded that the beneficial effects against ischemic heart disease from drinking were outweighed by the adverse effects on other areas of health, particularly cancers.

Alcohol is a leading risk factor for death and disease worldwide, and is associated with nearly a tenth of deaths in people aged 15-49 (2.8 million deaths annually), according to the Global Burden of Disease study published in The Lancet which estimated levels of alcohol use and health effects in 195 countries, including the UK, between 1990 and 2016.

Globally, a third of people drink alcohol (equivalent to 2.4 billion people), and 2.2% of women and 6.8% of men die from alcohol-related health problems each year including cardiovascular diseases, cancers, communicable and non-communicable diseases, intentional and unintentional injuries, and transportation-related injuries.

The researchers used data from 694 studies to estimate how common drinking alcohol is worldwide and used 592 studies including 28 million people worldwide to study the health risks associated with alcohol between 1990 to 2016 in 195 countries. In the study, a standard alcoholic drink was defined as 10g of alcohol.

Previous studies looking at these risks have relied on self-reported surveys and alcohol sales data to estimate consumption levels. The researchers of the new study said this had limitations, so for their research, they provided more robust estimates of alcohol consumption by combining alcohol sales data with:

  • the prevalence of alcohol drinking and abstinence
  • self-reported data on the amount of alcohol drank
  • tourism data to estimate the number of alcohol-drinking visitors to an area
  • estimating levels of illicit trade and home brewing.
The authors found there was only a protective effect between alcohol and ischemic heart disease, and there were possible protective effects for diabetes and ischemic stroke, but these were not statistically significant. Overall, the risk of developing all other health problems increased with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed each day.

Combining these findings, the protective effect of alcohol was offset by the risks and overall the health risks associated with alcohol rose in line with the amount consumed each day.

They estimated that, for one year, in people aged 15-95, drinking one alcoholic drink a day increased the risk of developing one of the 23 alcohol-related health problems by 0.5%, compared with not drinking at all.

The risk increased to 7% in people who drank two drinks a day and 37% in people who drank five drinks every day.

Study lead author Dr Max Griswold of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, USA, said: “Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount of alcohol.

“In particular, the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and infectious diseases offset the protective effects for ischaemic heart disease in women in our study. Although the health risks associated with alcohol starts off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more.

“Policies focussing on reducing alcohol consumption to the lowest levels will be important to improve health. The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chair said: “If you choose to drink alcohol, then it is really important that you do so responsibly, and this study is a stark reminder of the real, and potentially lethal, dangers that too much alcohol can have on our health and that even the lowest levels of alcohol intake increase our risks.”

*GBD 2016 Alcohol Collaborators. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. The Lancet. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31310-2

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