Alcohol is a global killer, study finds

Alcohol kills 2.8 million people every year globally, causing cancer, heart disease and road accidents and even by worsening tuberculosis, researchers said Thursday.

They found no evidence that light drinking might help keep people healthy and said there's no evidence that drinking any alcohol at all improves health.

Governments need to change the guidance they give to their citizens and should consider taxes and other measures to discourage drinking, the international team of researchers reported in the Lancet Medical Journal.

"Although the health risks associated with alcohol start off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more," Dr. Max Griswold of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who led the study team, said in a statement.

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"Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount of alcohol."

The large international team, which included hundreds of researchers, examined data from more than 1,000 studies.

There is some evidence that alcohol may reduce the risk of heart disease very slightly, but that effect is more than outweighed by the other damage it causes. Alcohol use comes in seventh as an overall cause of death, said the team, whose work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But it was the leading risk factor for early death in 2016 for people aged 15 to 49, they found. Alcohol use caused death by injury, by self-harm and by worsening tuberculosis in this group, the team found.

For older people, cancer is the most common fatal health consequence of drinking. That fits in with a separate study released Thursday, which found that men who drank an average of seven drinks a day as teenagers had three times the risk of developing prostate cancer later in life.

It's probably because alcohol damages developing cells, said the senior editor of the study, Emma Allott, who teaches nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The prostate is an organ that grows rapidly during puberty, so it's potentially more susceptible to carcinogenic exposure during the adolescent years," Allott said in a statement.

"We also found a positive association between higher cumulative lifetime alcohol intake and high-grade prostate cancer diagnosis," the team wrote in their report, published in Cancer Prevention Research.

The University of Washington team said governments need to counter prevailing theories suggesting that modest alcohol use can be beneficial.

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"The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analyses continue to show how much alcohol use contributes to global death and disability," the team wrote.

"Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day."

They found that globally, a third of all people drink alcohol of some sort. That includes 25 percent of women and 39 percent of men.

More than 95 percent of men and women drink alcohol in Denmark, the team found, while in Pakistan and Bangladesh — both Muslim countries where the religion discourages drinking — fewer than 1 percent of residents use alcohol, the team found.

Governments should act to discourage drinking, they recommended.

"Worldwide, we need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programs, and to consider recommendations for abstaining from alcohol," Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor of global health at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

"These include excise taxes on alcohol, controlling the physical availability of alcohol and the hours of sale, and controlling alcohol advertising."

Outside experts agreed.

"The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue," Robyn Burton of King's College London wrote in a commentary.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association both say men can safely drink up to two alcoholic drinks a day and women up to a drink a day, although neither group recommends that people start drinking.

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

The CDC also says that more than 2,000 Americans die each year from acute alcohol intoxication, and that more than 38 million American adults admit to binge-drinking once a week, downing eight drinks at a time on average.

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