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January 20, 2023

How much alcohol is healthy? 'No amount,' these guidelines warn.

Daily Briefing

    In a major shift from previous recommendations, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) on Tuesday issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption, warning that "no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health," Michael Levenson writes for the New York Times.

    New guidelines warn that 'no amount' of alcohol is healthy

    CCSA on Tuesday released updated guidelines on alcohol consumption. Previously, Canadian health officials advised women to consume no more than 10 drinks in a seven-day period and advised men to consume no more than 15.

    Now, CCSA's guidelines outline a "continuum of risk" associated with alcohol consumption. "The experts who developed the guidelines said the new approach builds on growing evidence, after decades of sometimes conflicting research, that even small amounts of alcohol can have serious health consequences," Levenson writes.

    Recent research suggests that consuming a small amount of alcohol can slightly increase a person's risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. However, the risk increases significantly for individuals who drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

    In the guidelines, CCSA defines a standard drink as a 12-ounce bottle of beer that is 5% alcohol, a five-ounce glass of wine that is 12% alcohol, or a 1.5-ounce shot glass that is 40% alcohol.

    According to CCSA, the risk is "low" for people who consume no more than two standard drinks each week. It is "moderate" for people who consume three to six standard drinks each week, and "increasingly high" for people who consume seven or more standard drinks each week.

    "Research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health," the report states. "It doesn't matter what kind of alcohol it is — wine, beer, cider or spirits. Drinking alcohol, even a small amount, is damaging to everyone, regardless of age, sex, gender, ethnicity, tolerance for alcohol or lifestyle. That's why if you drink, it's better to drink less."

    According to Catherine Paradis, interim associate director of research at CCSA, consumption of just two drinks per week has been associated with an increased risk of seven kinds of cancer—including breast and colon cancer—and cardiovascular disease.

    In addition, Paradis, who co-chaired the panel that created the new guidelines, noted that the World Health Organization recently said the risks associated with alcohol consumption had been "systematically evaluated over the years and are well documented" and that "when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health."

    The report noted that any decrease in alcohol consumption can benefit a person's health. "This is true even for those who do not cut their drinking to low or moderate levels," Levenson writes. "In fact, those consuming high levels of alcohol have much to gain by reducing their consumption by as much as possible."

    "We have this line: Drink less, live more," said Alexander Caudarella, CEO of CCSA. "The idea is that any reduction of alcohol will significantly reduce your risk."

    Canada's guidelines offer a 'different way of looking at alcohol'

    While the measurements for standard drinks can vary, most countries set specific drink limits. For example, Australia recommends no more than 10 drinks per week and no more than four drinks per day. In addition, Britain suggests consuming no more than six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer each week. In the United States, health officials recommend no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

    For Canadian health officials, the primary goal of the "less prescriptive approach" is to "encourage consumers to make healthier choices," Levenson writes.

    "The guidance is really a fundamentally different way of looking at alcohol and saying we need to be much more open and transparent about what are the risks associated with it and what the science has shown us," Caudarella said. "It's really putting it out there in a way that lets people assess their own risk target and work toward it."

    To help consumers lower their alcohol consumption, the report suggested adding warning labels—like the ones seen on cigarettes—to all alcoholic beverages sold in Canada. In the report, CCSA highlighted evidence that health warnings on packaging can boost public awareness of the association between alcohol consumption and cancer.

    Industry reaction

    Beer Canada, a national trade group that represents over 50 Canadian brewing companies, said that it still supports CCSA's 2011 guidelines, noting that the process of updating those guidelines "lacked full transparency and, to date, has not included the essential rigor of an expert technical peer review."

    "Beer Canada and Canadian brewers have a long history promoting moderation and responsible consumption," Beer Canada said. "Beer Canada believes the decision whether to drink, and if so how much, is a personal one. Responsible, moderate consumption can be part of a balanced lifestyle for most adults of legal drinking age."

    Separately, Dan Paszkowski, president and CEO of Wine Growers Canada, which represents the country's wineries, said the group in 2021 introduced a campaign called "The Right Amount," to encourage "responsible consumption of wine."

    "It's essential for Canadians to have confidence in public health institutions and the messaging must be informative, not persuasive, and based on sound science," Paszkowski said. "From some to none, the right amount is different for every person." (Levenson, New York Times, 1/19)

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