EU has ‘highest’ level of alcohol use and related harm

Europe has the perception that there is a safe level of alcohol consumption, but the truth is there’s no such thing, argues Lars Møller.

From The Parliament

Every drink, whatever the type of alcohol, adds to your risk of dying early. Many people accept this risk, or ignore it. Drinking is, therefore, a trade-off between perceived social or cultural benefits and the health costs.

On the other hand, as the global leader in public health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) must lay out the objective evidence and thus sets no safe level. WHO advises that, whatever your level of drinking, you should consider reducing it, for the good of your health.

Apart from being a drug of dependence, alcohol has been known for many years as a cause of some 60 different types of disease and condition, including injuries, mental and behavioural disorders, gastrointestinal conditions, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, immunological disorders, lung diseases, skeletal and muscular diseases, reproductive disorders and prenatal harm, including an increased risk of prematurity and low birth weight.

In recent years, overwhelming evidence has confirmed that both the amount of alcohol consumed over a life-time, the frequency of drinking and how much you drink each time increase the risk of alcohol-related harm. There is no question that less is better.

The fact is that only half the world’s population drinks alcohol. Unfortunately, WHO 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.

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

Alcohol consumption is an issue for all age groups that drink, but especially of concern to young people as 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.

The protective effect of drinking alcohol is a myth. Research has shown a lower risk of ischaemic events, that is heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes, among middle-aged and older, light-to-moderate drinkers. 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. Giving up drinking, even for moderate drinkers, gives noticeable health benefits.

Very quickly after stopping, non-drinkers notice that they sleep better and feel more refreshed and alert the next day, they also find it easier to control their weight.

Another issue is that 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 female body, which means alcohol will take longer to leave her system. But for both sexes and for all ages, the conclusion is the same, less is better.

Lars Møller is programme manager at the alcohol and illicit drugs unit of WHO Europe