“The safest level of drinking is none.” That’s the key message from a large international study on the impact of alcohol consumption in 195 countries and territories between 1990 and 2016.
Despite the old adage that ‘a glass of wine a day is good for you,’ the message isn’t entirely surprising. We all know that alcohol consumption is implicated in numerous diseases from liver cirrhosis to various cancers, as well as more immediate risks such as violence and road accidents. But the study reminds us just how damaging alcohol can be, even in moderation.
Based on over 1,000 data sources and studies, the researchers estimated the prevalence of drinking, abstaining, and consumption rates in terms of standard drinks per day (defined as 10 g of pure ethyl alcohol, less than a 5 oz glass of 12% wine).
The results? In 2016, 33% of people globally were drinkers (25% of women, 39% of men). This varied dramatically by region, with higher prevalence in more ‘developed’ areas; but even among comparable countries, Canada’s drinking rates were high, with 87% of men and 81% of women defined as drinkers.
More sobering is the finding that globally, alcohol consumption is the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disability, and the leading risk factor in 15-to-49-year-olds.
Unsurprisingly, the authors found that risk of negative health impacts increase with alcohol consumption, as shown in the graph to the right. They also found that the protective effect of low to moderate consumption on cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, although still present, is offset by an increased risk of cancer, injuries and other communicable diseases.
But given no one is drinking with the intention of improving their health, why has the study caused so much controversy? And just how big is the health risk of having just one drink a day?
The controversy doesn’t stem from the reminder that alcohol can have a damaging effect on health, but from how absolute and restrictive the take-home message that ‘there is no safe level’ is when the increase from zero-to-one drink a day equates to just four extra people in 100,000 developing a serious alcohol-related condition. The risk does climb quickly with heavier drinking habits, however, and it makes sense to put this in context so people can decide what this should mean for their own lifestyle choices.
Perhaps the messaging, and the suggestion that we consider abstinence as a solution, is too strong for popular consumption. But the results should challenge us to think critically about our drinking habits, especially for those of us who feel we drink more than we should.