Newsflash: there is no safe limit for drinking alcohol, eating bread rolls, driving or living

A Cambridge University professor has delivered a splendid response to a new Global Burden of Disease study claiming that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

The academics said they pooled data from 592 previous studies and concluded that teetotalism is the only way forward to avoid risking your health.

The study was published in The Lancet, which argued for a “global movement” of alcohol control, and the lead author demanded further reductions in UK drinking guidelines

David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said: “Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no 'safe' level does not seem an argument for abstention.

“There is no safe level of driving, but the government does not recommend that people avoid driving.

“Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

One commenter pondered whether there is a safe level of cheese consumption, or whether it is possible to enjoy a well-fired bread roll without risking your health.

The studied examined levels of alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016, analysing data from 15 to 95-year-olds, contrasting teetotallers with those that had one drink per day.

After crunching the numbers, they estimated that consuming just one drink per day increases the risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health problems by 0.5% compared with not drinking at all.

Lead author of the study, Max Griswold of the University of Washington, said: “Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increases with any amount of alcohol.

“The strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and infectious diseases offset the protective effects for heart disease in our study.

“Although the health risks associated with alcohol start off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more.”

Prof Sonia Saxena, a researcher at Imperial College London, added: "One drink a day does represent a small increased risk, but adjust that to the UK population and it represents a far bigger number, and most people are not drinking just one drink a day.

“Most of us in the UK drink well in excess of safe limits, and as this study shows there is no safe limit. The recommendations need to come down further and the government needs to rethink its policy. If you are going to drink, educate yourself about the risks, and take an informed risk.”

The BBC ran the headline: “No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms.” That is despite the study being an estimation, rather than a confirmation.

Many contrasting studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption is not only perfectly safe, but also carries health benefits.

There is a fear that anti-alcohol lobbyists are using these studies to push alcohol down the route of tobacco, with plain packaging, graphic health warnings, advertising bans and general demonisation.

Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “This is the slippery slope in action, with all the rhetoric we are used to hearing from tobacco control activists. There should no longer be any doubt that the aim of ‘public health’ zealots is to regulate alcohol like cigarettes and treat drinkers like smokers. Damaging and illiberal policies such as sin taxes, advertising bans, graphic warnings and minimum pricing must be resisted.

“The empirical claims in the study are based on a weak modelling technique and fly in the face of decades of epidemiology. It is patently untrue to claim that there are no health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption and the suggestion that there is ‘no safe level of alcohol’ is scaremongering nonsense. Science is being sacrificed in the name of a draconian zero-tolerance approach for which consumers will pay a heavy price.”

This study follows yesterday’s claims that the UK drinks industry is overly reliant on heavy drinkers, which drew a fierce rebuttal from a trade, since it flies in the face of plummeting drinking rates in Britain and an industry focus on responsibility.

Miles Beale, chief executive at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said: “The latest ONS data shows that alcohol consumption in the UK has fallen 19% over the last decade, and people are less likely to binge drink than they were 10 years ago.

“Alcohol-related hospital admissions are down and producers are responding to consumer demands for lower-alcohol drinks by increasing their range of innovative low-and-no alcohol products.

“The drinks industry continues to work in partnership with government, most recently helping with the government’s Alcohol Strategy, to tackle alcohol-related harms.”

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