As It Happens

Study warns no amount of alcohol is safe — but a risk expert says it's nothing to panic about

A new study has found that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, but that doesn't mean David Spiegelhalter will be swearing off booze.

'One or two drinks a day is really not ... something to be too concerned about': David Spiegelhalter

Despite headlines about a glass of wine a day being healthy, a new study warns that no amount of alcohol is good for you. (Peter Forest/Getty Images for Starz)

A new study has found that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, but that doesn't mean David Spiegelhalter will be swearing off booze.

"Although you might not say it's safe, you should not say it's dangerous," the professor of public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

The study, which was published in The Lancet Friday, is based on previous research into the effects of alcohol consumption on a person's health.   

It found that although moderate drinking could protect against heart disease and diabetes, the risk of cancers and other illnesses outweighs the benefits. 

Spiegelhalter said he doesn't dispute the findings, but he spoke to Mann about why he thinks a drink a day isn't the worst thing ever. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

The study finds that the safest level of drinking is none. What do you make of that statement?

That's the bit where I started, you know, getting a little bit uncertain.

When we looked to this in the past and generally found that the risk is lowest for people who have one or two drinks a day ... and actually for people who don't drink at all, the risk is a bit higher.

Their model when they did this, the things where drinks seemed to help, like diabetes and heart disease, were cancelled out by the things which even low doses of alcohol … seem to harm, like cancers and other causes of illness.

They reviewed data from hundreds of studies and yet when they came to this conclusion, it would appear, that they felt that the risk of death or even premature death was higher because of alcohol consumption. Is that wrong?

Essentially right from the first drink … is doing you harm.

This is quite a controversial finding because people have often claimed in the past that, you know, the first one or two drinks was actually a good thing for you.

And this has got a lot of coverage around the world ... and even led the paper then to suggest that it might be reasonable to recommend abstention to people.

At this point I started getting quite uneasy because if you looked at the data that they did … and what the actual harms of low consumption of alcohol does — as one drink a day or two drinks a day, within government guidelines — it's actually very low, indeed. 

So although you might not say it's safe, you should not say it's dangerous.

One or two drinks a day may not be safe, but it's hardly dangerous either, says a professor who studies risk. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

But I guess even if it is only relative and not absolute risk, given how much we've been told over the years that one or two glasses of wine is beneficial in terms of things like heart disease, is it not useful for people to have this information in terms of making decisions about whether to drink?

It is important for people to know that, but I also think it's important to get these things in perspective.

And just a headline: "There's no safe level of drink" and "The first drink can harm you" … sounds like it's really dangerous. It's not.

So I really think that they shouldn't, you know, emphasize those conclusions without giving a feeling of just how important these risks are.

So for someone like me looking at a study like this and trying to interpret what it means to me ... how do I understand something like this, in layman's terms?

The one thing that people have concluded is that relative risks, just telling you there's a seven per cent increased risk from having two drinks a day, is actually a very, very bad way of communicating risk.

But when you convert to absolute numbers, in other words: How many people would need to have this behaviour to cause one person to be harmed? It gives you an idea of the magnitude.

And when you put it in those terms, you realize that one or two drinks a day is really not — if you get some pleasure out of it — something to be too concerned about.

Can I ask if you yourself drink alcohol?

Yes I do. Absolutely. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.