Drinking alcohol offers no net health benefits, review finds

The health benefits of moderate drinking are likely overstated, say Canadian researchers who reviewed 87 long-term studies on alcohol and death rates.

Claims about alcohol's health benefits warrant skepticism

Studies have reported health benefits from moderate drinking, but a new review suggests there's no good evidence supporting the claims. (Bob Edme/Associated Press)

The health benefits of moderate drinking are likely overstated, say Canadian researchers who reviewed 87 long-term studies on alcohol and death rates.

Studies have reported health benefits from moderate drinking such as healthier hearts  and longer life.

Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia has taken another look at published studies on alcohol and mortality on nearly four million people, including more than 367,000 deaths.  

Moderate drinking was defined as no more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day for men or one standard drink a day for women, at least once a week, for any kind of alcohol.

The review in the March issue of the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs expands on his work on classifying abstainers. A problem arises when grouping those who abstain with former drinkers who quit or substantially cut back as their health worsened. The health and life expectancy of surviving moderate drinkers ends up looking better in comparison.

"We should drink alcohol for pleasure," Stockwell said in an interview. "But if you think it's for your health, you're deluding yourself."

The review concluded a "skeptical position is warranted" when it comes to alcohol's net health benefits. Researchers often did a poor job of asking about alcohol use and accounting for other protective factors among drinkers, such as wealth and eating more fruits and vegetables, Stockwell said.

When the quality of studies was considered, the risk was higher from each level of drinking.

Jurgen Rehm of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto knows how difficult it is to study abstinence. He's observed a disconnect among survey respondents who report never in their lives having drunk alcohol but who previously said they were prior or current drinkers.

There's substantial public interest in whether light drinking is protective or harmful, as well as commercial implications, Rehm said in a journal commentary published with the review.

Rehm called the message of health benefits from light alcohol consumption "exaggerated." 

"In my view, nobody has to start drinking for health reasons," Rehm said. "Those who drink lightly, if they stick almost religiously to one drink per day, no real problem. I would not advise them to stop."

The research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Clarifications

  • The story originally reported a higher risk of death for higher volume drinkers having 65 grams or more of alcohol a day. In fact, when the best quality studies were considered, the risk was higher from each level of drinking.
    Mar 22, 2016 3:51 PM ET

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