Understanding alcohol health risks

Published: 8th Jan 2016

Proposed new guidelines reduce the alcohol intake that's officially recommended. The guidance is that men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week—about seven glasses of wine or five pints of higher-strength lager.

That's if they want to keep health risks at "a low level".

But it can be difficult to understand exactly what a low level of risk means in practice, given that almost all activities carry some health risks.

The advice comes from evidence that people who drink at or above the recommended 14 units have a risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition, at some point in their lives, of about 1%.

To put that in context, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter has compared that to the risks from other lifestyle decisions:

"These guidelines define 'low-risk' drinking as giving you less than a 1% chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition. So should we feel OK about risks of this level? An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health.

"In contrast, an average driver faces much less than this lifetime risk from a car accident. It all seems to come down to what pleasure you get from moderate drinking."

There's some level of risk attached to any level of alcohol consumption, according to the expert group that informed the guidelines. Professor Spiegelhalter was one of the experts consulted as part of the development of the guidelines, and told us:

"It would be unfortunate if consumption above this guideline were interpreted as "unsafe". But the risk does steadily rise, and the expert group suggest considering a second 'higher-risk' threshold—for example, 28 units a week is estimated to lead to a 5% extra chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition for men, and 8% for women."


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