Is alcohol really so unhealthy?

Posted on September 22, 2015

A report last week in the Lancet puts concerns about alcohol into some perspective. The study looked at drinking habits of over 100,000 people in four different types of country: high-income (Canada, Sweden), upper-middle-income (like Argentina and South Africa), lower-middle-income (China, Colombia) and low-income (India and Zimbabwe).

The researchers found that drinking a lot can be bad for you – no surprise there. Moderate drinking was associated with a reduction in heart disease, although there was an increased risk of some cancers. Interestingly, for the wealthier countries, the researchers found 'significantly reduced hazards' for a combined measure of 'clinical outcomes'. In other words, moderate drinkers seemed to have fewer health problems than non-drinkers.

Of course, as anyone who has read such research will quickly realise, there are all sorts of potential problems in drawing firm conclusions. But even if we take the idea that drinking reduces health risks with a pinch of salt (though there is plenty of evidence that low levels of drinking are protective against heart disease), it seems reasonable to conclude that moderate drinking is not a health problem in the developed world.

So why have governments - most notably in Scotland and Ireland - decided that there is a pressing need for minimum unit pricing? Politicians would no doubt argue that since very heavy drinking can cause serious health problems, we should everything we can to reduce it. But people who genuinely abuse alcohol are a small minority of the population and they are unlikely to cut their consumption very much due to price increases. However, increases in price across the board for everyone will hit the pockets of ordinary drinkers who like a harmless tipple or two.

One thing that was far less surprising was the headline on the Lancet's press release: 'Harmful alcohol use linked with increased risk of alcohol-related cancers and injury'. You have to dig into the press release some way to find out that moderate drinking in wealthier countries is associated with fewer health problems. Not much change, then, from the public health lobby's favourite media cheerleaders.