According to experts, 4,600 lives in the UK could be saved each year just by cutting down on the daily alcohol intake to just over half a unit (5 g). In England, alcohol related health problems are estimated to cost the NHS £3.3 billion per year. The study has been published in the online version of BMJ Open.

The researchers state that the current government recommendations of 3 to 4 units per day for men (i.e. 24-32g) and 2 – 3 units for women (16-24g) may “not be compatible with optimum protection of public health.” One unit is defined as 8 g or 10 ml of pure alcohol, a pint of standard beer therefore contains 2 to 3 units, whilst a 175 ml glass of wine has around 2 units.

The researchers calculated what impact changing regular drinkers’ average alcohol consumption and raising the percentage of non-drinkers would have on the health of England’s entire population. They evaluated the effect on the death toll from 11 conditions, which were at least in part associated with alcohol consumption by using the Preventable Risk Integrated ModEl for Alcohol (PRIME-Alcohol). Conditions included cirrhosis of the liver, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, five cancers, diabetes, and epilepsy.

Part of their calculations included a meta-analysis of published research in order to quantify the risk of chronic disease risk for different levels of alcohol consumption. To obtain weekly levels of alcohol consumption in grams from 15,000 UK adults, the team used information from the 2006 General Household Survey and discovered that in that year less than a third (29%) of adults in the UK were classed as non-drinkers, i.e. they drank less than 1g per day, whilst 170,558 people died from the 11 alcohol-related conditions. They then calculated that just over half a unit of alcohol, i.e. 5g would be the optimal level of consumption for current drinkers as it would prevent or delay about 4,579 premature deaths. This equates to 3% of all deaths from the 11 conditions.

According to the calculations, a 5g consumption of alcohol would result in 843 additional cardiovascular disease deaths, but this would be balanced out by over 2,600 fewer cancer deaths (8% less) and a reduction of nearly 3,000 fewer liver cirrhosis deaths (49% less).

They write:

“However, our modeling shows that when multiple conditions are considered simultaneously, the levels of alcohol that would actually be likely to be associated with reduced risk of chronic disease are much lower than is generally accepted or recommended by government.”

The researchers confirm a widespread belief of alcohol protecting against cardiovascular disease. They do not recommend that non-drinkers start consuming alcohol for health benefits, stating there much safer ways of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. They also state encouraging abstinent people to start drinking simultaneously with encouraging drinkers to cut down “is a mixed message that may be difficult to communicate.”

In a concluding statement, the researchers write:

“It is likely that government recommendations would need to be set at a much lower level than the current ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines in order to achieve [the best possible outcomes for public health].”

Written By Petra Rattue