There's No 'Safe' Level of Alcohol Consumption, Global Study Finds

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Drinking alcohol in moderation is more harmful than previously thought, according to a new study that concludes there's no "safe" level of alcohol consumption.

The comprehensive study, which analyzed information from millions of people in nearly 200 countries, found that alcohol is tied to nearly 3 million deaths globally each year, with about 1 in 10 deaths linked to alcohol use among people ages 15 to 49.

What's more, any protective health effects of alcohol were offset by the drink's risk, including strong links between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer and injuries such as those resulting from car accidents. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]

"The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising," the researchers wrote in their paper, published online Aug. 23 in the journal The Lancet. "Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none."

The findings contrast with most health guidelines, which say that moderate drinking — about one drink a day for women and two for men — is safe.

However, it's difficult to estimate the risks for a person who drinks fairly infrequently — such as someone who has one drink every two weeks — so the findings might not apply to this population. "[It] doesn't mean, if you drink on birthdays and Christmas, you're going to die," said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who was not involved in the study.  

Rather, the findings apply more to people who have one drink a day, most days of the week, Humphreys said. Contrary to what some previous studies have found, "the kind of person who drinks every week, but never drinks much, is in fact not better off than somebody who doesn't drink," according to the new study, Humphreys told Live Science.

No "safe" level

The study analyzed information from nearly 700 previous studies to estimate how common drinking alcohol is worldwide, and examined almost another 600 studies including a total of 28 million people to investigate the health risks tied to alcohol.

The researchers found that, globally, about 1 in 3 people (32.5 percent) drink alcohol, which is equivalent to 2.4 billion people worldwide, including 25 percent of women and 39 percent of men.

Worldwide, drinking alcohol was the seventh-leading risk factor for early death in 2016, accounting for about 2 percent of deaths in women and 7 percent of deaths in men. For people ages 15 to 49, alcohol consumption was tied to 4 percent of deaths for women and 12 percent for men in 2016.

The study found that moderate drinking was, in fact, protective against ischemic heart disease. But this benefit was outweighed by the health risks of alcohol.

Specifically, for people who consume one drink a day, the risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health problems increases by 0.5 percent over one year, compared with someone who doesn't drink.

But the risk increases rapidly the more people drink. 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 risk increases by 37 percent over one year. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]

"Alcohol poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today," Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor of global health at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

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

Alcohol abstinence?

Humphreys called the work the "most sophisticated global study of the impact of alcohol on human health ever conducted."

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

However, in terms of recommending abstinence from alcohol, Humphreys said that promoting such a message would be difficult, in part because of the large number of people who currently drink alcohol and the influence of powerful industries in the alcohol market. "I'm not saying it's a terrible idea," Humphreys said, but "it would be a very tough uphill battle to be established."

Still, in addition to considering abstinence, the researchers called for other policies that focus on reducing the population's consumption of alcohol, such as increasing alcohol taxes, controlling the availability of alcohol and the hours it can be sold, and regulating alcohol advertising. "Any of these policy actions would contribute to reductions in population-level consumption, a vital step toward decreasing the health loss associated with alcohol use," Gakidou said.

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.