Past research has attributed alcohol consumption to protective health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease. But according to a new massive global study, authored by a cohort of 512 researchers from 243 institutions, the best thing you can do for your health is leave alcohol behind altogether.
"The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising," according to a report published this week in the journal The Lancet. "Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none."
The Global Burden of Disease Study features data from 694 sources, plus 592 prospective and retrospective studies on alcohol consumption and its risks. Researchers at Seattle's Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation examined alcohol use and its health effects on individuals age 15-95 in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016.
According to their findings, alcohol use was the leading risk factor for global deaths and disability-adjusted life-years in 2016 — that's 10 percent of all deaths and 2.8 million lives lost — indicating a larger attributable burden of alcohol than previously thought. The greatest proportion of alcohol-related deaths among young people involved tuberculosis, road injuries and self-harm, according to the report.
Alcohol burden was calculated via exposure estimates, including the sociodemographic index, a “summary measure of overall development, based on educational attainment, fertility, and income per capita within a location.”
“Based on weighted relative risk curves for each health outcome associated with alcohol use, the level of consumption that (minimizes) health loss due to alcohol use is zero,” the scientists wrote.
As amounts of daily drinking increased, so did the risk of health loss, even when taking into account the protective effects of alcohol use associated with heart disease and diabetes in women. Protective effects were also offset by other risks associated with cancers, also known to increase with alcohol consumption.
The burden of alcohol was greatest for males, the researchers found. In fact, men suffer an attributable burden approximately three times greater than that of women, according to 2016 data.
“Given that most low and low-to-middle SDI settings currently have lower average alcohol consumption than high-to-middle SDI settings, it is crucial for decision makers and government agencies to enact or maintain strong alcohol control policies today to prevent the potential for rising alcohol use in the future,” authors concluded. “Effective policies now could yield substantial population health benefits for years to come.”
The study urges governments to consider implementing recommendations through policy platforms, including excise taxes on alcohol and restricting alcohol sales and hours of sales, as well as controlling advertising.
“Any of these policy actions would contribute to reductions in population-level consumption—an important step toward decreasing the health loss associated with alcohol use,” authors wrote, citing Russia as a striking example of the dangers of alcohol use. There, 75 percent of deaths among men 15-55 years of age in the 1980s were attributed to alcohol.
But one key limitation of the study included researchers’ difficulty in estimating illicit alcohol production, accounting for more than 50 percent of total alcohol consumption in some countries.
A representative with the Distilled Spirits Council said in an emailed statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "raising taxes and reducing availability of regulated alcohol products, as advocated by the researchers, will only exacerbate dangerous illicit alcohol consumption and will do nothing to deter alcohol abuse. The researchers make clear that they are advocating for worldwide abstention from alcohol. A more reasonable and effective approach is to address issues surrounding alcohol abuse country by country, taking into account the culture, individual alcohol consumption patterns and the marketplace."
The council referenced recent evidence from the American Heart Association that found moderate alcohol consumption may help lengthen life and has also been associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality and heart disease deaths than individuals who did not drink.
Cox Media Group