There is no safe limit for alcohol consumption, a global study found.
Previous research suggested moderate levels of alcohol – about one drink a day for women and two for men – may protect against heart disease. But the authors of the new study insist that any benefits are outweighed by the harm done.
They estimate that consuming just one drink a day increases the risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health problems by 0.5 per cent, compared with not drinking at all. The increased risk rises to seven per cent for people who consume two drinks a day and soars to 37 per cent for those who down five drinks.
Any protection against heart disease, stroke and diabetes turned out to be “not statistically significant”.
Lead researcher Dr Max Griswold, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said: “Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount of alcohol.
“In particular the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries and infectious diseases offset the protective effects for ischaemic heart disease in women in our study.
“Although the health risks associated with alcohol start off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more.”
The scientists pooled data from 592 studies with a total of 28 million participants. A standard alcoholic drink was defined as one containing 10 grams of alcohol. The team used a new statistical method to estimate the risks of consuming between zero and 15 standard drinks a day.
About one in three people worldwide – 2.4 billion – drinks alcohol, according to their findings reported in The Lancet medical journal. Each year 2.2 per cent of women and 6.8 per cent of men die from alcohol-related health problems including cancer, tuberculosis and liver disease.
Other harmful consequences of drinking alcohol include accidents and violence. Drinking alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for overall premature death and disease in 2016, the study found. However, among people aged 15 to 49 it was the single most important risk factor, accounting for 3.8 of women’s and 12.2 per cent of men’s deaths.
For people over 50, cancer was the leading cause of alcohol-related deaths, responsible for 27.1 per cent among women and 18.9 per cent for men.
Professor Emmanuela Gakidou, of the University of Washington, said: “Worldwide we need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programmes and to consider recommendations for abstaining from alcohol.”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, of the Royal College of GPs, said: “This study is a stark reminder of the real and potentially lethal dangers that too much alcohol can have on our health. GPs are not killjoys. Maximum drinking limits are set for good reason.”