‘If I was a 3 glasses of wine a week person, I wouldn’t stop in the face of recent scare stories’

So what does the new information really mean for moderate drinkers?

Research, published during the summer in The Lancet, concluded there is no safe level of alcohol intake and the healthiest approach is to drink as little as possible

Research, published during the summer in The Lancet, concluded there is no safe level of alcohol intake and the healthiest approach is to drink as little as possible

 

After a record 1,000 days, the Public Health Alcohol Bill has passed through the Dáil. Among its more groundbreaking features are the inclusion of written warnings about the role of alcohol in causing cancer. The Irish Cancer Society says there are 900 alcohol-related cancers, and 500 alcohol-related cancer deaths each year in Ireland.

Alcohol has a had a pretty bad health rap of late. Research, published during the summer in The Lancet, concluded there is no safe level of alcohol intake and the healthiest approach is to drink as little as possible.

It said that over a single year, one alcoholic drink a day (10g of alcohol) increases the risk of developing one of 23 related health problems by 0.5 per cent. This rose to 7 per cent for those who had two drinks a day.

Not everyone agrees with a blanket damning of the occasional tipple. David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winston Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication in Cambridge, criticised the Gates Foundation-funded research for not including absolute risk measurements in its original report.

So what does the new information really mean for moderate drinkers?

“Let’s consider one drink a day (10g) compared to none, for which the authors estimated an extra 4 in 100,000 people would experience a (serious) alcohol-related condition,” he said.

“That means, to experience one extra problem, 25,000 people need to drink 10g alcohol a day for a year . . . That’s a total of 400,000 bottles of gin among 25,000 people, being associated with one extra health problem.”

Healthier

Which he reckons indicates a rather low level of harm in these occasional drinkers. In his view, claiming as the paper’s authors do that there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption does not seem an argument for abstention.

“There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving,” Spiegelhalter avers, adding somewhat cheekily, “come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention”.

Some research has shown that people who drink a little alcohol seem to live longer and remain healthier than those who don’t drink at all. But this correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and longevity might have nothing to do with alcohol.

It could be that people who drink moderately tend to have healthier diets and lifestyles than those who don’t drink at all. The higher death rate among teetotallers could simply reflect that people who are in poor health are less likely to drink.

However, it is possible that small amounts of alcohol might have beneficial effects on the body. For example, alcohol reduces the tendency of blood to form clots, which might reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack.

Surprising

Researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast found that people who drink up to three glasses of wine or beer a week are seven per cent less likely to die or develop cancer compared with non-drinkers.

Probably one of the more surprising pieces of alcohol research is that moderate drinkers have less chance of developing type 2 diabetes than those who abstain.

This was the outcome of a 10-year Dutch study of some 35,000 adults aged between 20 and 70, which showed moderate drinkers had 40 per cent less chance of developing diabetes than teetotallers.

While drinking is undoubtedly a risk factor for depression, there is some evidence that an occasional night-time tipple improves insomnia. Indeed, I remember my granddad warming a bottle of bedtime stout for this very purpose.

One of the keys to understanding the contradictory messages about alcohol and health is that risk is simply an expression of statistical probability. It cannot predict the future.

If I was a teetotaller I probably wouldn’t start drinking. But if I was a three glasses of wine a week person, I certainly wouldn’t stop imbibing in the face of recent scare stories.

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