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SB Voices: Is alcohol the enemy?

With so much information available regarding “safe” levels of alcohol consumption – much of it contradictory – is ditching booze altogether really the best option to lead a long, happy and healthy life?

Is abstaining from alcohol the best option for our health?

It’s been one of those weeks in the spirits sphere when numerous reports have been released condemning alcohol consumption in one way or another. Over the years, SB has reported on dozens of health studies into the effects of alcohol – and the pattern appears to be that as soon as one is published another emerges with contradictory findings.

For example, in 2015 the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) advised there was “no safe level of alcohol consumption” and that middle-aged people should cut down on their intake to reduce their risk of developing dementia. A couple of years later in August 2017, the findings of a 29-year study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, claimed men and women who drank one alcoholic beverage a day were more likely to reach the ripe old age of 85 without dementia.

But roll into 2018 and the advice alters again. In February this year, alcohol was branded a “major risk factor” for early-onset dementia amongst heavy drinkers.

That brings us to the latest global study published in the Lancet journal this week, which claims there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption” (a worrying sentiment for someone who works around booze). The Global Burden of Disease analysed levels of alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries, including the UK, between 1990 and 2016.

Participants were aged between 15 to 95 years old, and those who abstained from drinking were compared to those who had one alcoholic drink a day. The findings revealed that out of 100,000 non-drinkers, 914 would develop an alcohol-related health problem such as cancer, or suffer an injury. However, an extra four people would be affected if they drank one alcoholic drink a day. Double your intake to two alcoholic drinks a day, and an extra 63 people were struck down with an ailment. Increase this to five drinks a day, and there was a spike of 338 people who developed a health problem.

Argument for abstention

“This widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analysis continue to show how much alcohol use contributes to global death and disability,” the study concluded. I’m in absolutely no denial that there are myriad health issues related to alcohol consumption – heart problems, liver cirrhosis, cancer, weight gain (and the uncountable issues that can subsequently arise).

“Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none,” the study urged in its final conclusion. However, just last month, a study cautioned that going teetotal in midlife was linked to a higher risk of dementia (45%) compared to those who consumed between one and 14 units per week, the current recommended guideline in the UK for men and women.

Who should we listen to?

There was an interesting post published in response to the study by Professor David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, in which he wrote this thought-provoking point: “The paper argues that their conclusions should lead public health bodies ‘to consider recommendations for abstention’.

“But claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention. There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving.

“Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

Nobody with an iota of knowledge about the potential negative effects of alcohol opts to drink wine, beer or spirits in the hope of leading a healthier lifestyle. But alcohol can be fun. A glass of wine with dinner, a gin and tonic after work on a Friday, a cocktail on a Saturday night – alcohol is a social lubricant. It brings people together and, ultimately, so much of it is utterly delicious.

Yes, there are innumerable risks to people’s health if it’s not enjoyed in a balanced and responsible manner – only fools would argue otherwise – but life is for living. If we abided by every cautionary word of advice to not eat this particular food or consume that particular drink in order to live a long and healthy life, is that really living at all?

I’m by no means arguing that we should ignore studies such as the one published in the Lancet today altogether. But as cognitive beings we should be capable enough to take the information that’s out there and make individual, informed decisions about our own health and well being.

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