Even ‘Low-Risk’ Alcohol Drinking Can Result in Hospitalization and Death

Drinking Wine With Dinner

It’s not just heavy drinking that’s a problem — even consuming alcohol within weekly low-risk drinking guidelines can result in hospitalization and death, according to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Moderate drinkers “are not insulated from harm,” write researchers led by Adam Sherk, Ph.D., of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

Canada Low Risk Alcohol Consumption

Does drinking within Canada’s low-risk guidelines prevent harm? Credit: University of Victoria

The Canadian government’s low-risk drinking guidelines state that women should consume no more than about 10 drinks per week and men no more than 15. (A “drink” is 12 oz. or 355 cc of beer, 5 oz. or 148 cc of wine, or 1.5 oz. or 44 cc of liquor.) These limits are slightly higher than those in the United States and exceed those of most other high-income countries.

In their research, Sherk and colleagues found that, in British Columbia, a significant portion of alcohol-caused death and disability was experienced by those drinking within these guidelines. For example, more than 50 percent of cancer deaths resulting from alcohol use occurred in people drinking moderately. Further, 38 percent of all alcohol-attributable deaths were experienced by people drinking below the weekly limits or among former drinkers.

However, for women, alcohol consumption within the guidelines did offer some protection from death from heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Nonetheless, “[t]his protective effect did not appear to hold for men,” the authors write, “who experienced harm at all drinking levels.”

For their study, the investigators used a new, open-access model — the International Model of Alcohol Harms and Policies (InterMAHP) — which can be used to estimate alcohol harms in a country or state, in total or by drinking group. They used British Columbia-specific alcohol exposure data from substance use surveys, hospital data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, and mortality data from Statistics Canada’s Vital Statistics. These sources were nonidentifying and for 2014.

Because of these results, Sherk and colleagues say that some national drinking guidelines, which are published by many countries to help drinkers make informed health decisions, may be too high. This may be particularly true in Canada, where the research was conducted.

Sherk suggests that guideline limits should be lowered to match those in the Netherlands: “Don’t drink or, if you do, drink no more than one drink per day.”

Overall, he says, the best advice for drinking is to err on the side of caution, “When it comes to alcohol use, less is better.”

Reference: “Does Drinking Within Low-Risk Guidelines Prevent Harm? Implications for High-Income Countries Using the International Model of Alcohol Harms and Policies” by
Adam Sherk, Ph.D., Gerald Thomas, Ph.D., Samuel Churchill, M.Sc. and Tim Stockwell, Ph.D., 15 June 2020, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
DOI: 10.15288/jsad.2020.81.352

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