Even an occasional glass of wine or beer increases the risk of health problems and dying, according to a major study on drinking in 195 nations that attributes 2.8 million premature deaths worldwide each year to booze.
“There is no safe level of alcohol,” said Max Griswold, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington and lead author for a consortium of more than 500 experts.
Despite recent research showing that light-to-moderate drinking reduces heart disease, the new study found that alcohol use is more likely than not to do harm.
“The protective effect of alcohol was offset by the risks,” Griswold told AFP in summarizing the results, published in the medical journal The Lancet on Friday.
“Overall, the health risks associated with alcohol rose in line with the amount consumed each day.”
Compared to abstinence, imbibing one “standard drink” — 10 grams of alcohol, equivalent to a small beer, glass of wine or shot of spirits — per day over one year, ups the absolute risks of developing at least one of two dozen health problems by about 0.5 per cent, the researchers reported.
That means 914 of every 100,000 15-95 year olds would develop a condition in one year if they did not drink, but 918 people in 100,000 who drank one alcoholic drink a day would develop an alcohol-related health problem in a year.
Looked at one way, that seems like a small increment.
“But at the global level, that additional risk of 0.5 per cent 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.
Less is better, none is best
“Those are excess deaths, in other words, that could be avoided,” she told AFP.
The risk climbs in a steep “J-curve”, the study found.
In people who drank two drinks a day for one year, the risk of developing an alcohol-related illness increased to 7 per cent compared to those who opt for abstinence, so that 977 people in 100,000 who drank two alcoholic drinks a day would develop a health problem compared to 914 among the teetotallers.
The risk of developing an alcohol-related health problems was 37 higher in people who drank five drinks every day for one year compared to those who did not drink at all. That works out to 1,252 people per 100,000.
The “less is better, none is best” finding jibes with the World Health Organization’s long-standing position, but is at odds with many national guidelines, especially in the developed world.
Britain’s health authority, for example, suggests not exceeding 14 drinks per week “to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level”.
“There is always a lag between the publication of new evidence and the modification and adoption of revised guidelines,” said Gakidou, who admitted to being an “occasional drinker” herself.
“The evidence shows what the evidence shows, and I — like 2.4 billion other people on the planet that also consume alcohol — need to take it seriously.”
Overall, drinking was the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disease in 2016, accounting for just over two per cent of deaths in women and nearly seven per cent in men.
The top six killers are high blood pressure, smoking, low-birth weight and premature delivery, high blood sugar (diabetes), obesity and pollution.
But in the 15-49 age bracket, alcohol emerged as the most lethal factor, responsible for more than 12 per cent of deaths among men, the study found.
The 95 per cent club
The main causes of alcohol-related deaths in this age group were tuberculosis, road injuries and “self-harm”, mainly suicide.
King’s College London professor Robyn Burton, who did not take part in the study, described it as “the most comprehensive estimate of the global burden of alcohol use to date.”
The examination of impacts drew from more than 600 earlier studies, while a country-by-country tally of prevalence — the percentage of men and women who drink, and how much they consume — drew from another 700.
Both were grounded in new methods that compensated for the shortcomings of earlier efforts.
Among men, drinking alcohol in 2016 was most widespread in Denmark (97 per cent), along with Norway, Argentina, Germany, and Poland (94 per cent).
In Asia, South Korean men took the lead, with 91 per cent hitting the bottle at least once in a while.
Among women, Danes also ranked first (95 per cent), followed by Norway (91 per cent), Germany and Argentina (90 per cent), and New Zealand (89 per cent).
The biggest drinkers, however, were found elsewhere.
Men in Romania who partake knocked back a top-scoring eight drinks a day on average, with Portugal, Luxembourg, Lithuania and Ukraine just behind at seven “units” per day.
Ukrainian women who drink were in a league of their own, putting away more than four glasses or shots every 24 hours, followed by Andorra, Luxembourg, Belarus, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Britain, all averaging about three per day.
The most abstemious nations were those with Muslim-majority populations.