Sorry Winos: When It Comes to Alcohol, No Amount of Consumption Is Safe
For years, we’ve been led to believe the occasional drink is good for our health. Go on a casual online search and there are many studies that purport to say that a glass of wine a day helps the heart, or that whisky can actually be good for you.
It turns out, all of that doesn’t mean anything.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization published a study whose findings couldn’t be clearer: when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health.
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“Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none," the report states. "This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day.”
Although the WHO did acknowledge that moderate drinking could have potential health benefits, including against heart disease, these were actually negligible when stacked up against the harm it causes.
And according to the WHO, it’s not the kind of beverage that causes harm, but the alcohol itself.
“Alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago—this is the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco,” the WHO said. “Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including the most common cancer types, such as bowel cancer and female breast cancer. Ethanol (alcohol) causes cancer through biological mechanisms as the compound breaks down in the body, which means that any beverage containing alcohol, regardless of its price and quality, poses a risk of developing cancer.”
This latest advisory, which was released by the WHO in Europe, cited data from the region, which said that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in the WHO European Region are caused by “light” and “moderate” alcohol consumption—less than 1.5 liters of wine or less than 3.5 liters of beer or less than 450 milliliters of spirits per week.
“This drinking pattern is responsible for the majority of alcohol-attributable breast cancers in women, with the highest burden observed in countries of the European Union (EU),” the report said. “In the EU, cancer is the leading cause of death—with a steadily increasing incidence rate—and the majority of all alcohol-attributable deaths are due to different types of cancers.”
But a blanket statement like this does attract its fair share of criticism. For example, NPR.org quoted a University of Cambridge professor who said that claiming that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption isn’t a compelling argument for people to stop drinking.
“There is no safe level of driving, but governments do not recommend that people avoid driving,” Spiegelhalter told the BBC. "Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”
In the Philippines, a study in 2021 said that about 4 in 10 Filipinos reported consuming some type of alcohol over the last 30 days before the survey was taken, while one in three Filipinos reported high-risk and heavy alcohol use with consuming six or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting. And according to the WHO, in the country, 21.1 deaths per 100,000 men are attributable to alcohol-induced liver cirrhosis, while 136 deaths per 100,000 men are attributable to cancer.
Like many other things, alcohol consumption is a deeply personal subject. While health officials and organizations like the WHO can offer statements and guidelines, it’s still up to us how we’d like to take it.