Dangers of Alcohol
“There is no safe level of alcohol consumption”
That is the scary conclusion of a massive new study just published in the medical journal Lancet. I found this conclusion rather stark and shocking and so I read the entire study and in my opinion it was statistically flawed.
Most of the studies that have previously been published have concluded that a glass of wine a day is actually good for your health. The new study says that, while that daily drink is good for your heart, the benefit is more than offset by an increased risk of cancer.
But before you throw that Chateau Margaux down the drain and decide on a life of abstinence, let’s take a better look at how these researchers came to their conclusions.
There is no question that alcohol use and misuse is a huge public health issue. It is estimated that alcohol is the cause of approximately 100,000 deaths in North America each year. Alcohol is known to cause or worsen at least 23 health conditions from cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, ulcers and GI tract conditions, immune system dysfunction and many more as well as several types of cancer.
Besides chronic disease, there are also the after-effects of alcohol which include motor vehicle crashes, sexual assault and voluntary or involuntary suicides.
In Canada there are an estimated 5000 alcohol related deaths and 77,000 hospitalizations annually. It is estimated that the abuse of alcohol costs our economy over 20 billion dollars a year in health costs and lost productivity.
These population-level statistics are sobering, but they don’t mean having an occasional drink is going to kill you.
In fact, beyond the alarmist headlines, the new research provides pretty good evidence that moderate drinking poses little serious health risks. The study published in The Lancet is one of the largest and one of the first to directly compare health outcomes of non-drinkers and drinkers.
Worldwide, one in three adults consumes alcohol, but in Western countries it’s in the 80 per cent to 95 per cent range. Canada ranks 40th among 195 countries in percentage of drinkers. We are also mid-pack when it comes to consumption.
The statement “There is no safe level of alcohol consumption” is debatable. But the important question for individuals is: How much of a risk does drinking pose?
According to the research, 914 in every 100,000 non-drinkers will develop one of the 23 previously mentioned health conditions in a given year. Among those who consume the equivalent of one drink a day, that risk increases to 918 in every 100,000. That’s 0.5 per cent more–negligible and statistically insignificant. At two drinks a day, the risk creeps up to 977 in every 100,000, or 0.7 per cent more; at five drinks daily, the risk is 1,252 in every 100,000, or 37 per cent higher than a non-drinker.
So let’s go back to the risk created by consuming one drink per day.
David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, noted that the absolute risk to a drinker compared with a non-drinker increases by four in every 100,000. (The four is calculated by deducting 914 from 918).
What that means in practical terms is that 25,000 people would have to drink one alcoholic drink daily for an entire year—the equivalent of 16 bottles of vodka each—for one of them to develop an additional one of those 23 health conditions.
That does not sound very unsafe to me. Alcohol is a drug and just like any other drug, the danger is related to dose.
The new research is important because it reminds us that—given the damage done by alcohol misuse—strong public health initiatives are necessary.
Taxation, minimum pricing, age restriction, restrictions on advertising, labelling and public education and guidelines are all important measures to reduce the potential harmful effects of alcohol.
Cheap, readily available alcohol and buck-a-beer policies are bad for public health. But even worse is prohibition.
Where the authors of the new research went wrong was with the suggestion that public-health officials should promote abstinence. There is no justification in the data for that conclusion. It is just a case of the authors being moralistic.
No one drinks alcohol because they think it’s good for your health. (My grandfather drank a shot of whiskey every morning and told me it was “medicinal”). We drink because it’s sociable, relaxing and fun. When it interferes with daily living, it stops being fun and becomes a health risk.
Very few things in life, especially fun things are risk-free—sex, drugs (including alcohol) food, swimming, skiing, skating and even driving especially in our winters.
What we need to do is balance the risks of activities against the benefits/pleasures they provide us, not to try and live in a risk-free cocoon. At the end of a long working day many people come home to have that glass of wine or beer to help them relax. Alcohol, in moderation, relieves stress. That is why people who consume one drink a day statically live longer than teetotallers.
The new research may show that the safest level of drinking is none, but ultimately it’s up to each of us to know our limits.
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