PARIS • Even an occasional glass of wine or beer increases the risk of health problems and dying, according to a major study on drinking in 195 nations that attributes 2.8 million premature deaths worldwide each year to booze.
"There is no safe level of alcohol," said Dr Max Griswold, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington, and lead author for a consortium of more than 500 experts.
Despite recent research showing that light to moderate drinking reduces heart disease, the new study found that alcohol use is more likely than not to do harm.
"The protective effect of alcohol was offset by the risks," Dr Griswold said in summarising the results, published in medical journal The Lancet yesterday.
"Overall, the health risks associated with alcohol rose in line with the amount consumed each day."
Compared with abstinence, imbibing one "standard drink" - 10g of alcohol, equivalent to a small beer, glass of wine or shot of spirits - per day, for example, ups the odds of developing at least one of two dozen health problems by about 0.5 per cent, the researchers reported.
Looked at one way, that seems like a small increment: 914 out of 100,000 teetotallers will encounter those problems, compared with 918 people who imbibe seven times per week. "But at the global level, that additional risk of 0.5 per cent among (once-a-day) drinkers corresponds to about 100,000 additional deaths each year," said senior author Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor at the University of Washington.
The risk climbs in a steep "J-curve", the study found. An average of two drinks per day, for example, translated into a 7 per cent hike in disease and injury compared with those who opt for abstinence.
With five "units" of alcohol per day, the likelihood of serious consequences jumps by 37 per cent.
The "less is better, none is best" finding jibes with the World Health Organisation's longstanding position, but is at odds with many national guidelines, especially in the developed world.
Overall, drinking was the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disease in 2016, accounting for just over 2 per cent of deaths in women and nearly 7 per cent in men. The top six killers are high blood pressure, smoking, low birth weight and premature delivery, high blood sugar (diabetes), obesity and pollution.
But in the 15 to 49 age bracket, alcohol emerged as the most lethal factor, responsible for more than 12 per cent of deaths among men, the study found. The main causes of alcohol-related deaths in this age group were tuberculosis, road injuries and "self-harm", mainly suicide.
In 2016, among men, drinking alcohol was most widespread in Denmark (97 per cent), along with Norway, Argentina, Germany and Poland (94 per cent). In Asia, South Korean men took the lead, with 91 per cent hitting the bottle at least once in a while.
Among women, Danes also ranked first (95 per cent), followed by Norway (91 per cent), Germany and Argentina (90 per cent), and New Zealand (89 per cent).
The biggest drinkers, however, were found elsewhere.
Men in Romania who drink knocked back a top-scoring eight drinks a day on average, with Portugal, Luxembourg, Lithuania and Ukraine just behind at seven "units" per day. Ukranian women who drink were in a league of their own, putting away more than four glasses or shots every 24 hours, followed by Andorra, Luxembourg, Belarus, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Britain, all averaging about three per day.
The most abstemious nations were those with Muslim-majority populations.