No Alcohol Safe to Drink? The Real Results of That New Alcohol Study

Chances are that while you were listening to the radio, scanning the news, or scrolling through your newsfeed on social media, you came across a headline like this one: “No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms.”


The study, originally published in the Lancet, looked at levels of alcohol consumption and its health effects in 195 countries between 1990 and 2016.


The headline is alarmist to me, and, if you’re like me, a bit confusing. For years, we’ve heard that moderate drinking can actually help prevent heart disease.


“No Alcohol Safe to Drink”? The Study’s Findings

The study concluded that risks of developing an alcohol-related health problem, such as heart disease or cancer, gradually increased with the amount of alcohol consumed each day. Here’s a summary from the story I linked to above:

Analysing data from 15 to 95-year-olds, the researchers compared people who did not drink at all with those who had one alcoholic drink a day.


They found that out of 100,000 non-drinkers, 914 would develop an alcohol-related health problem such as cancer or suffer an injury.


But an extra four people would be affected if they drank one alcoholic drink a day.


For people who had two alcoholic drinks a day, 63 more developed a condition within a year and for those who consumed five drinks every day, there was an increase of 338 people, who developed a health problem.

Did you get all that? The headlines about this story caused a splash, but it turns out the truth about the study’s findings is a bit more measured.


Certainly, as the study corroborates, the risks associated with drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed. Harm or the potential for harm increases along with how much one drinks. Here’s the breakdown:

  • For non-drinkers, 914 out of 100,000 people developed some kind of alcohol-related health issue. That’s 0.00914%.
  • Drinking one drink per day increased the number of people who developed an alcohol-related problem to 918, or 0.00918%.
  • Drinking two drinks per day increased the number to 977, which translates to 0.00977%.
  • Even at five drinks per day, when the number of people affected increased by 338, brought the percentage of those affected to 0.01252%.


This means that even if you drink five drinks per day, there’s a high probability that you won’t develop a alcohol-related health concern. The vast majority of drinkers in the study simply did not experience alcohol-related health issues.


The Risks of Heavy Drinking Are Real

I’m not trying to minimize these risks at all. They’re real. And as far as I can tell, this study didn’t consider other possible impacts of drinking on other areas of life (mental health, job performance, family relationships, etc.). Those concerns are very real as well.


That heavy drinking is really bad for you is something that most heavy drinkers already know. This study certainly confirms that. While I could go through the health risks associated with heavy drinking, others more interested in that have done a bang-up job of describing these risks.


Staying Calm about Moderate Drinking

But the risks are much smaller than the study’s headlines and the way it’s being reported suggest. Since the publication of this study and the initial wave of articles with scary headlines about it, there has been another wave of stories encouraging calm, like this one.


These stories rightly point out that the risks of moderate drinking (two drinks per day for men, one per day for women) are minimal. I would also add that the very small risk of associated with moderate drinking does not negate the well-documented health benefits of moderate drinking.


The bottom line? As always, investigate the effects of alcohol and make a decision for yourself about how much you want to drink.


Why the Study Made It Harder to Talk Openly About Alcohol Use

I don’t think that this study changed any minds. Those who were against drinking in the first place found more ammunition for their position. Those (like me) who advocate for a harm reduction perspective, which says that any progress made toward less harmful drinking and leaves room for moderate drinking, are encouraging a calm, measured interpretation.


The tragic real results of this study? Those who are struggling with heavy drinking or alcohol addiction probably feel even more ashamed about their drinking.


Those who drink heavily almost always feel at least some degree of shame, conscious or unconscious, about their drinking. Their drinking starts and continues because they like how it makes them feel. As their drinking becomes problematic and begins to have negative consequences, they found themselves in a terrible position: They love and need the very thing that they know is harming them.


As a result, they often feel a great deal of self-loathing and shame. They’re terrified they have a drinking problem or might be an alcoholic. They constantly are rationalizing their drinking to reduce their shame (“Drinking relaxes me,” or “I need to drink to unwind for the day,” etc.).


And here’s the thing: Shame-driven drinking is problematic drinking.


My beef with this study is that the way it was presented effectively scared even moderate drinkers. Those who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner each night read the headlines with mild anxiety.


Imagine what the person who struggles with alcohol, who can’t look himself in the mirror the morning after a binge. I think he felt shame. Heavy, smothering shame.


How to Change Your Relationship with Alcohol

When you’re drinking and you’re ashamed about your drinking, you’re not free. You’re captive to alcohol. That may not mean that you don’t drink at all, but it does mean that your relationship with alcohol may need to change.


And for change to happen, drinkers need to feel free enough to talk openly about their alcohol use. To paraphrase Brene Brown, shame cannot survive vulnerability; openly talking about your drinking and your relationship with alcohol reduces shame instantly and is the first step toward change.


That’s why I wanted to create a judgment-free group for those who are struggling with alcohol to tell their stories and consider how they want alcohol to be a part of their lives. Interested? Let me know.


Live near Ventura, Camarillo, or Oxnard, CA?

I’d love to connect.

Contact me today to get started.


Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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