The alcohol wars rumble on: light drinking ‘has no health benefits’

    23 March 2016

    The health benefits of moderate drinking have been exaggerated, research carried out at the University of Victoria in Canada has claimed.

    The study, which was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, reviewed 87 past research papers. The researchers behind the review concluded that the studies were badly designed, biased and that drinking at a reasonable level was unlikely to have a positive effect on health.

    Previous studies have suggested that drinking red wine can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, ischaemic stroke and type-2 diabetes. One paper published in February found that having two and a half to five drinks a week reduced the incidence of an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) by 28 per cent among men.

    The study’s lead author, Professor Tim Stockwell, rejected the idea that occasional drinkers lived longer, saying that their alcohol consumption was ‘biologically insignificant’. Of the 87 studies reviewed, just 13 were found to adequately measure the difference between occasional drinkers and those who abstained completely.

    ‘A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against? There’s a general idea out there that alcohol is good for us, because that’s what you hear reported all the time, but there are many reasons to be sceptical,’ says Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research.

    Instant analysis
    This is a systematic review of multiple studies totalling a large number of people. By making adjustments to the way the data is analysed, it suggests there is no health benefit to moderate consumption of alcohol. This is in contrast to previous studies (of all designs) that have suggested a health benefit with moderate consumption. These are controversial conclusions and it is best not to take the study as the final word.

    In an ideal world, a large, multi-centre randomised control trial with long-term follow-up would answer the question once and for all, but sadly this is unlikely ever to be performed.

    The take-home message for consumers: alcohol in large amounts is deleterious for the health; moderate drinking may or may not reduce specific health risks and, while the scientific community continues to argue on this subject, the best course is probably the middle ground. ‘Moderate’ alcohol consumption and an effort to improve overall health in those who drink is probably the way forward.
    Research score: 4/5