Apparently, There’s No Level of ‘Safe’ Alcoholic Consumption

But a statistician's rebuttal of this enormous medical study should give us comfort.

(Shutterstock)

Well, dammit. A study in The Lancet, which is the British equivalent of the Journal of the American Medical Association, claims that no amount of daily alcoholic consumption is safe. It shortens your life, contributes to various cancers, and no form of alcohol intake correlates with any discernible health benefits. Not even one glass of red wine with dinner is good for you — and certainly not the novelty oversized fishbowl goblet of red wine that glints in our eyes when somebody pours Valpolicella into it for us.

In achieving this depressing and somehow intuitively correct claim, the study authors determined that “among the population aged 15–49 years, alcohol use was the leading risk factor globally in 2016, with 3.8 percent  of female deaths and 12.2 percent of male deaths attributable to alcohol use.” (Emphasis ours).

It’s not just some quickie poll of a study, either. They did their homework, in almost 200 countries:

Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for death and disability, but its overall association with health remains complex given the possible protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption on some conditions. With our comprehensive approach to health accounting within the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2016, we generated improved estimates of alcohol use and alcohol-attributable deaths and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) for 195 locations from 1990 to 2016, for both sexes and for 5-year age groups between the ages of 15 years and 95 years and older.

There’s also a fascinating component of what percentage of a country drinks. Generally, lower-income countries are home to fewer drinkers (as are countries with high levels of religiosity, especially predominantly Muslim nations). Higher-income countries display greater gender parity as well. For instance, in Sweden, 86 percent of women and 87 percent of men drink — but in Nepal, it’s 1 to 5 percent of women and 21 percent of men. 

(The Lancet)

And there’s already a rebuttal. Via The New York Times, a Cambridge statistician wrote on Medium that the extra health problems that moderate alcohol consumption causes are actually very small. The proper way to look at it is not in terms of aggregate life-years lost for the entire global population, but in terms of specific health issues alcohol causes in individuals. Framed thusly, we have this (emphasis in original):

That means, to experience one extra problem, 1,600 people need to drink 20g alcohol a day for a year, in which case we would expect 16 instead of 15 problems between them. That’s 7.3 kg a year each, equivalent to around 32 bottles of gin per person. So a total of 50,000 bottles of gin among these 1,600 people is associated with one extra health problem. 

Additionally, the statistician notes, Claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention. There is no safe level of driving, but governments do not recommend that people avoid driving.” 

Well, we live in a transit-first city, so that’s not entirely true for San Francisco (and Aspen, Colo., has started paying city workers not to drive downtown). But point taken. And you know what happens if you eat lots of vegetables, exercise regularly, and abstain from everything bad for you, right? You die anyway. Have a drink.

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