In Depth

Healthy drinking in moderation is a myth, says new study

The only safe amount of alcohol is none at all, according to the latest research

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A major study has concluded that even moderate amounts of alcohol are harmful. The findings are unlikely to be welcomed by moderate drinkers who consider themselves healthy.

The report, published in medical journal The Lancet yesterday, makes grim reading for those of us who believe that the occasional glass of wine is good for us.

Researchers from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington drew on more than 1,300 studies to accurately assess rate of alcohol consumption and accompanying disease burden in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016.

Their research, described by one peer as “state-of-the-art”, found that drinking was responsible for around 2.8 million deaths in 2016.

Globally, the study found that alcohol consumption was a contributing factor in 9% of premature deaths across the world. Men are three times more likely to die in alcohol-related circumstances than women. 

Cancers and cardiovascular diseases are linked to alcohol consumption, as well as “intentional injury such as violence and self-harm, and traffic accidents and other unintentional injuries such as drowning and fires”, CNN reports.

As for the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking, senior study author Emmanuela Gakidou acknowledged that there was some evidence that alcohol’s “protective effects” slightly lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease.

But those benefits are “outweighed by the overall adverse health impact of alcohol, even at moderate levels”, she said.

Researchers concluded that alcohol was a “leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss”, and that the only level of consumption connected with better health was “zero”.

Gakidou said that the link between even moderate drinking and poorer health was the “most surprising finding” of the study.

“We're used to hearing that a drink or two a day is fine,” she said. “But the evidence is the evidence.”

Most national guidelines, including the UK’s, urge moderate alcohol consumption rather than total abstention, The Guardian reports.

But David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, says that governments must put the findings in context before making any changes to public policy.

“Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention,” he said.

“There is no safe level of driving, but the government do not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

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