Booze: Is it friend or foe?

By James Gallagher
Health reporter, BBC News


The link between alcohol and cancer has been made starkly clear by a report in the British Medical Journal.

It shows that for men 10% of all cancers can be traced back to alcohol, for women the figure is 3%.

And the more you drink the greater the risk.

But when you look at the wider effect on health, the message is more confusing. This centres around the red-wine effect, where a small amount is thought to benefit heart health.

However long-term excessive alcohol consumption is clearly deadly. Alcoholic liver disease accounts for approximately 5,000 deaths in the UK each year.

The latest study shows that the dangers of drinking escalate quickly, especially for cancers which have already been linked to alcohol such as oesophagus, liver, bowel and breast cancers.

In men who regularly drink less than a pint and a half of beer, 3% of these cancers were linked to alcohol.

For those who had more, the figures go up to 18%.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance, said: "I think what becomes quite clear out of this study is that there is a link between the amount that people drink and the risk, so the more that people drink the more they will be at risk."

'Better with alcohol'

But several studies have reported the benefits of drinking in moderation.

In February, the Institute for Population and Public Health at the University of Calgary published an analysis of decades of research on the subject.

It showed a 14% to 25% reduction in heart disease in moderate drinkers compared with those who had never consumed alcohol.

One of the challenges here is the definition of moderate. The effect was noticed in those regularly drinking between 2.5g and 14.9g of alcohol. One small glass of wine contains approximately 12g.

At the time, the lead researcher, Professor William Ghali, told the BBC: "Our extensive review shows that drinking one or one to two drinks would be favourable.

"There is this potentially slippery slope, most notably with social problems and alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, but the overall mortality including cancer and accidents shows you would be better with alcohol."

Although as Ellen Mason, from the British Heart Foundation, warns: "Drinking more than the recommended daily maximum appears to offer no protection at all and can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

"If you don't drink alcohol already there is no reason to start just because of the potential heart health benefits. There are much safer and healthier ways to look after your heart, like getting physically active, eating a healthy, balanced diet and stopping smoking."

Professor Karol Sikora, the medical director of Cancer Partners UK, said: "On balance a small amount does no harm. Once you go above two slugs a day then you get into the danger zone. Although people always underestimate how much they drink.

"I've got friends coming over tonight and I will be cracking open a bottle, maybe a few."

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