There is no doubt that alcohol consumption is associated with increased harm, particularly in excess use: in 1988 alcohol was rated as a group 1 carcinogen (the highest classification) for certain gastro intestinal cancers (ref) and we all know the impact alcoholism causes in society (ref).

But the waters have been rather muddied when talking about limited use, given the possible protective effects of consumption of small amounts on a regular basis for certain conditions.

2018 saw the publication in the medical journal The Lancet (Ref) of research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that no level of alcohol consumption was in fact, safe.

“Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss.  We found that the risk of all-cause mortality and of cancers specifically, rises with increased levels of consumption and the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero.  These results suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population level consumption.”

Researchers found they could not conclusively demonstrate that low levels of alcohol exposure did in fact offer a protective effect for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and that the level of possible protection was greatly outweighed by the increase in other diseases.

This study was performed over sixteen years with data collected from 592 sources covering 28 million   people from 195 countries.  Globally (including countries where alcohol is banned and the poorer countries where it is predominantly or only the men who drink) alcohol consumption is the 7th highest cause of death and Australians were found to be amongst the highest level of consumers.

These results released last year have not been without pushback.  Googling ‘Lancet alcohol use and burdens study flaws’ will bring up a number of sites rebutting the stand taken by the researchers, that the safest level of drinking is none.  The risk increase between zero and one drink per day is minimal, thus, they say, it is misleading to focus on no alcohol consumption, the focus should be on excessive use where significantly more harm is caused.

However since the results of this study were released, the Cancer Council has amended its guidelines (ref).  It states that there is convincing evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast, bowel, mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus and liver cancer and that even drinking small amounts increases your risk.  In several places, the council says if you chose to drink, limit your intake.  In the What Should I Do section, it now adds ‘to reduce your risk of cancer, if you don’t drink, don’t start.’

And then, a study funded by St Vincent’s Hospital, looking at 22 drugs and the measured risk to an individual and to society was reported on in a number of newspapers recently (ref).  25 drug harm experts, including emergency service workers, police, addiction specialists and welfare workers ranked the drugs according to harm to users, including illness, injury and death and the effects the drugs have on their families and wider communities.  Alcohol was ranked by far the most harmful, scoring 77/100.  The closest runner up was meth, scoring 66.

Our church’s abstinence stand on alcohol has come under criticism over the years.  As did our stand on smoking before that.  Now it seems science is again vindicating our stand, confirming health risks to the individual with even just one drink per day (and we have not even touched recently discovered effects of alcohol on epigenetics(ref) and considered how this may affect future generations…)  Add to this the harm alcohol causes to families and to the community as a whole, you have to ask “Is even one drink worth it?”

Isn’t it reassuring to see how God has indeed guided us in the past, offering confidence He will continue to guide us into the future.

thanks to Dr Don McMahon for drawing our attention to this information.