Health benefits of alcohol challenged by research findings

Wednesday 11 February, 2015

Health experts have warned that any perceived health benefits from alcohol may have been exaggerated.

Contrary to previous studies, which suggest moderate consumption of alcohol may protect against cardiovascular disease and decrease mortality, research published in The BMJ today1 found little to no protection among drinkers. The only cohort found to have any possible benefit was women aged 65 and over, and these protective associations may be explained by selection biases.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said any claims that there were direct health benefits from drinking alcohol should be treated with extreme caution.

"There is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer. In fact, there is a clear link between the amount of alcohol that someone drinks and their chances of developing cancer of the liver, bowel, breast and throat. The level of risk increases as consumption increases," Mr Harper said.

"Each year in Australia alcohol causes more cancer deaths than melanoma, yet many people are still unaware of the link."

Australian data suggests that alcohol intake accounts for 5% of the total cancer burden of disease2. It is estimated that 5070 cases of cancer are attributable to long-term chronic use of alcohol each year in Australia3.

Although alcohol is widely available and widely consumed, in 1988 it was classified by the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is the highest classification available and means that it is an acknowledged cause of cancer.4

Mr Harper said even moderate alcohol consumption may increase your risk of cancer, particularly if you drink regularly over a long period. For those who do drink, the key is to limit alcohol consumption and avoid binge drinking.

"The more a person drinks, the greater the risk of cancer. For those who do choose to drink, Cancer Council recommends that they drink only within the national guidelines for low risk alcohol consumption, which is no more than two standard drinks a day."

The BMJ study analysed up to 10 population based cohorts in order to investigate the link between alcohol consumption and mortality in different age groups.

A team of researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom used interview data from Health Survey of England 1998-2008 linked to national mortality data, looking at samples of 18,368 and 34,523 adults. Participants were interviewed about their average weekly alcohol consumption and their heaviest drinking day of the week.

1. All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines: pooled analyses of up to 10 population based cohorts. Knott CS, Coombs N, Stamatakis E, Biddulph J
2. Winstanley MH, Pratt IS, Chapman K, Griffin HJ, Croager E, Olver IN, Sinclair C, Slevin T. Alcohol and cancer: a position statement from Cancer Council Australia. MJA. 2011; 194: 479-82.
3. Ibid
4. International Agency for Research on Cancer. Monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans: alcohol drinking. Volume 44. Lyon: IARC. 1988.
Updated: 11 Feb, 2015