Q&A – How can I drink alcohol safely?

Dr Lars Møller, Programme Manager, Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at WHO/Europe, dispels some misconceptions about the so-called safe level of drinking in a question and answer (Q&A) session.

How can I drink alcohol safely?

This might not be the answer people want to hear, but there is no safe level for drinking alcohol. Of course there is lower-risk drinking, but WHO does not set particular limits, because the evidence shows that the ideal situation for health is to not drink at all. Alcohol is closely related to around 60 different diagnoses and for almost all there is a close dose–response relationship, so the more you drink, the higher your risk of disease. Less is better.

Doesn’t everyone drink?

Only half the world’s population drinks alcohol. The European Region has the world’s highest levels of alcohol use and the highest levels of alcohol-related harm. Alcohol is one of the Region’s leading causes of ill health and premature death.

Is alcohol really that bad?

We know alcohol causes cancer and high blood pressure, and there are a large number of alcohol-related injuries each year. And alcohol doesn’t just harm the drinker; it’s related to violence on the street and in the family.

What about young people? Surely they don’t need to worry about all that until they’re older?

Quite the opposite – the brain continues to develop until the age of 25 and alcohol interferes with that. The adolescent brain is especially susceptible to alcohol, and starting drinking young increases the risk of alcohol dependence in later life. The younger people are when they start drinking, the more damage they risk doing.

But isn’t red wine good for you?

Research has shown a lower risk of ischaemic events (heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes) among middle-aged and older, light-to-moderate drinkers. But the detrimental effects of alcohol far outweigh any potential protective benefits. An older person will get much greater health benefits from being physically active and eating healthy food than from alcohol.

I don’t drink that much. Will it really make a difference to my health if I give it up?

Even moderate drinkers notice health benefits when they stop drinking alcohol. Very quickly they notice that they sleep better and feel more refreshed and alert the next day. Non-drinkers find it easier to control their weight.

In this day and age why should women not drink as much as men?

There are very important health reasons why alcohol consumption is higher risk for women than for men. Alcohol is quite simply more damaging to women. The smaller percentage of water in a woman’s body than a man’s body means that alcohol will achieve a higher concentration and therefore a greater toxicity. In addition, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol is produced in smaller quantities in a woman’s body, which means alcohol will take longer to leave her system.