'No safe level of drinking' claims and understanding absolute risk

Grant Boone
August 24, 2018

That's in part because some older studies didn't account for the fact that many people who don't drink abstain either because they had addiction issues in the past, or have other health problems that force them to stay away from alcohol.

Dr Creina Stockley, manager of health and regulatory information at The Australian Wine Research Institute, commented: "The study conclusion also fails to acknowledge that countries with higher alcohol consumption have higher life expectancies, while those with lower consumption have lower life expectancies such that health outcomes are dependent on many demographic factors and should therefore be interpreted at a national rather than global level".

The study analyzed information from almost 700 previous studies to estimate how common drinking alcohol is worldwide; and examined close to another 600 studies including a total of 28 million people to investigate the health risks tied to alcohol. For people who consume two drinks a day, the risk of developing one of the 23 alcohol-related health problems increases by 7 percent over one year; and for those who drink five drinks a day, the risks increases 37 percent over one year. They found that the modest improvements in heart health associated with light drinking are more than offset by the increased risk of other conditions including breast cancer and cancer of the larynx, as well as violence and vehicle accidents.

The main causes of alcohol-related deaths in the 15-to-49 age group were tuberculosis, road injuries and self-harm, the study found.

The study, published on August 23, focused on alcohol use and health effects in people in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016.

A standard alcohol drink was defined as containing 10g of alcohol, or one unit. Women's figures are two a day and 10 a week. Of them, 2.2 per cent of women and 6.8 per cent of men die of alcohol-related health problems each year, the study found.

The team used a statistical method to estimate the risks of consuming between zero and 15 alcoholic drinks a day. On average, each day women consumed 0.73 alcoholic drinks, and men drank 1.7 drinks.

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While in 2016, drinking alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disease, in people aged 15-49 years old, alcohol was the leading risk factor, with nearly four per cent of deaths in women and 12.2 per cent of deaths in men attributable to alcohol.

The researchers said that, based on their results, public health campaigns should consider recommending abstinence from alcohol.

"The study confirms that alcohol is one of the world's leading causes of disability, disease and death", Humphreys said.

"But at the global level, that additional risk of 0.5 percent among (once-a-day) drinkers corresponds to about 100,000 additional deaths each year", said senior author Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor at the University of Washington and a director at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

At the time, England's chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, noted that any amount of alcohol could increase the risk of cancer.

Irish men have around four and half drinks a day - but don't make it into the top ten male consumers.

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