No safe limit to alcohol consumption, say researchers

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Going teetotal is the only way to avoid risking health with alcohol, scientists have claimed.

A major global study has concluded there is no safe limit to alcohol consumption.

Previous research suggested that moderate levels of alcohol – around one drink a day for women and two for men – may protect against heart disease.

But the authors of the new study insist that any benefits from drinking alcohol are outweighed by the harms.

They estimate that consuming just one drink per day increases the risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health problems by 0.5%, compared with not drinking at all.

US lead researcher Dr Max Griswold, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the  University of Washington, 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 start off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more.”

The scientists pooled together data from 592 studies with a total of 28 million participants to  assess the global health risks associated with alcohol.

A standard alcohol drink was defined as one containing 10 grams of alcohol.

The team used a new statistical method to estimate the risks of consuming between zero and 15 standard alcohol drinks each day.

Globally, around one in three people – or 2.4 billion – drink alcohol, said the researchers, whose findings are reported in The Lancet medical journal.

Each year, 2.2% of women and 6.8% of men die from alcohol-related health problems including cancer, tuberculosis and liver disease.

Other harmful consequences from drinking alcohol included accidents and violence.

Worldwide, drinking alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for overall premature death and disease in 2016, the study found.

However among people aged 15 to 49 it was the most important risk factor, accounting for 3.8 of women’s and 12.2% of men’s deaths.

Alcohol study
The new findings challenge previous research that suggests moderate consumption of red wine can protect the heart (Laura Lean/PA)

The 0.5% increase in risk meant that 918 people per 100,000 who consumed one alcoholic drink a day would develop a health problem compared with 914 who did not drink.

The relative increase in risk rose to 7% for people who consumed two drinks a day and soared to 37% for those who downed five drinks.

Any protection against heart disease, stroke and diabetes offered by alcohol turned out to be “not statistically significant”, said the researchers.

Drinking patterns varied greatly around the world, the study found.

Denmark had the highest proportion of alcohol consumers, 95.3% of women and 97.3% of men, and Pakistan and Bangladesh the lowest. Just 0.8% of Pakistani men and 0.3% of Bangladeshi women drank alcohol.

Men in Romania and women in Ukraine drank the most – 8.2 and 4.2 drinks per day respectively.

Professor Emmanuela Gakidou, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said: “Worldwide we need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programmes, and to consider recommendations for abstaining from alcohol.”

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