The headline to this story is an alternative interpretation of a study that’s going around this week in the news under headlines like “No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe, Experts Warn,” “No Healthy Level of Alcohol Consumption, Says Major Study,” and “If You’ve Ever Tasted Alcohol, Get Your Affairs in Order.”
The last headline is not real, but you get the idea.
I’m not saying the headlines are sensationalized. The researchers wrote in their lengthy article in the medical journal The Lancet: “The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: Alcohol is a colossal global-health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer. There is strong support here for the guideline published by the Chief Medical Officer of the U.K. who found that there is ‘no safe level of alcohol consumption.’”
This is scary for me, personally, as someone who consumes red wine regularly and already has enough regrets. Didn’t I just see not too long ago that a glass or two was good for my heart or brain? And that many of the longest-living, healthiest populations in the world incorporate moderate amounts of alcohol into an overall healthy lifestyle, and that it’s this comprehensive approach to health that should be emulated instead of picking and choosing from various approaches?
The new Lancet study includes a meta-analysis of many other studies, rolling them into one—looking at all kinds of health conditions, in all kinds of populations, in 195 countries, consuming all kinds of alcohol at various rates. So the study cannot, specifically, tell me that red wine is bad. And it can’t tell me that people who drink only in the presence of others, or only at meals, or people with high levels of anxiety or a family history of cardiovascular disease, et cetera, are at risk. There are ways to maintain a healthy relationship with a toxic substance, and there are many populations that may be more safely able to tolerate and even benefit from light drinking.
Nonetheless, the major takeaway of this study is that alcohol is indeed an extremely dangerous, toxic substance. This is easy to forget, because of its ubiquity and our instinct to devote more of our attention and fear to new and novel risks. Alcohol-related deaths number around 88,000 every year in the United States alone, and millions globally. The average annual number of Americans killed by terrorists, by comparison, is 74.
News coverage and political rhetoric are, at best, bad at helping us keep our eyes on what’s really most likely to kill us. Many of us could be more vigilant of our own habits if intake is creeping upward, and keep an eye on friends and family who may also be unaware of the risks or generally in need of a hand.
At the same time, it remains true that some people will benefit in some ways from small amounts of alcohol, and studies looking more specifically at certain effects of alcohol on certain disease processes may be more relevant to individuals. The new Lancet study, for instance, did find that one drink a day can be protective against diabetes and ischemic heart disease. But it was also associated with a higher rate of tuberculosis.
Even taken at the global scale, the harm associated with a single daily serving of alcohol was tiny—almost zero. So not everyone need worry. It’s difficult to think of anything in life that’s without risk, especially recreational activities. The risk of riding in a car to a bar is risky, as is going out into the world in any form. A sedentary, isolated life at home is also risky. The health benefit of any change in lifestyle can only be measured by comparison.