One drink is too many; a thousand is never enough. That's AA's standard refrain regarding alcohol consumption. Sure, it applies to the alcoholic. Who's never more than one drink from falling off the wagon. Turns out though, one drink is also too many for everyone else. If, that is, they want to reduce health risks.
So says a wide-ranging study in The Lancet anyway. And The Lancet should know. After all, it is one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed general medical journals out there. It's also one of the world's oldest. In fact, The Lancet has been around since 1823. Add the 512 researchers from 243 institutions who co-wrote the massive study on alcohol consumption and, well, you've got to consider this some sobering science.
Alcohol Consumption: The Data
Indeed, the research was exhaustive. In fact, lead author Max Griswold of the University of Washington said the new report is the largest alcohol study conducted to date. The database was comprised of more than a thousand alcohol studies and data sources. It also included death and disability records from 195 countries and territories taken between 1990 and 2016. The goal? To estimate how alcohol affects the risk of 23 health problems. The number that jumped out in the end was zero. Anything more than that was associated with health risks.
“What has been underappreciated, what’s surprising, is that no amount of drinking is good for you,” Emmanuela Gakidou told The Washington Post. Gakidou is a professor of global health at the University of Washington and the senior author of the alcohol consumption report. So you could say her word is gospel.
“People should no longer think that a drink or two a day is good for you. What’s best for you is to not drink at all,” she added for good measure.
The consumption report found that 2.8 million people worldwide died in 2016 of alcohol-related causes. It also found that alcohol is the leading health risk factor for people between the ages of 15 and 49.
Myths About Moderate Drinking
This is certainly a sobering report for the roughly 2 billion people who drink alcohol. It also challenges the maxims regarding moderate drinking, especially those that say a drink or two a day can help prevent heart disease. Why? Because the new study found that many other health risks offset any previously reported health benefits. That includes the risk of breast cancer, larynx cancer, stroke, cirrhosis, tuberculosis, interpersonal violence, self-harm and transportation accidents.
“Current and emerging scientific evidence does not suggest that there are overall health benefits from moderate drinking,” said Robert Brewer, who directs the alcohol program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was not involved in the new research. He pointed out that alcohol studies have long been dogged by factors that create a misleading impression of cause and effect.
“People who report drinking in moderation tend to be very different from people who don’t drink at all. They tend to be a healthier population. They tend to exercise more. And they tend to be more affluent. They also tend to have more access to health care,” Brewer said.
The Risk Factor
The Lancet report focuses on populations rather than individuals. It estimates risks of alcohol-related diseases and disabilities per 100,000 people as a function of alcohol consumption. And while the recommended daily allotment of drinks is zero, its authors don't at all suggest that there is significant danger in having a sip of alcohol. They do though note that the risks spike dramatically with heavy drinking.
"It’s a very small risk at one drink a day. 0.5 percent. At two drinks a day the health risks rise to 7 percent. At five drinks a day it's 37 percent higher," said Gakidou. "It also depends on all the other risk factors that the individual has."
While having a drink a day may not hurt a given individual, the report’s authors suggest that public health officials still need to pay more attention to alcohol. After all, any reduction in average consumption in a population should produce a health benefit.
Alcohol Consumption Around the World
The report says that in Denmark, just about everyone drinks. 97 percent of men and 95 percent of women to be exact. While the United States is relatively moderate, with just 73 percent of men and 60 percent of women drinking. That puts the U.S. in 51st and 47th place globally for men and women age 15 and older.
The heaviest-drinking nation? That's Romania. Romanian men on average consume 8.2 drinks a day. Next on the list is Portugal at 7.2 a day, followed by Luxembourg, Lithuania and Ukraine, whose men average 7 drinks a day each.
Ukrainian women are no slouch either. In fact, they average 4.2 drinks a day. That gives them the heaviest alcohol consumption in the world. Ukraine is followed by Andorra, Luxembourg, Belarus and Sweden.
Muslim-majority countries naturally report almost no alcohol consumption. The average for women in Iran is essentially zero (0.0003 drinks a day), the lowest rate globally. The lowest for men is in Pakistan, with an average of 0.0007 drinks daily.
We at Recovery Boot Camp are heartened to have confirmation of what alcoholics have known all along. One drink is too many. Or it certainly can be anyway. At least so far as health risks are concerned. And while we'll concede that most people won't feel a thousand drinks is never enough, it's time the world rethinks its view on alcohol consumption. Sure, liquor is cheap. Yes, it's readily available. And it's long been socially acceptable. But remember, so was tobacco. And we all know what happened with that.