Study backs alcohol UK limit of six glasses of wine a weekBMJ 2018; 361 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k1630 (Published 13 April 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k1630
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Excessive alcohol intake is regarded as a detriment to health, responsible for 4% of all deaths, and playing a putative role in 60 different diseases . Drinking within the limits, at light-to-moderate amounts, has shown to reduce cardiovascular disease risk and all-cause mortality in a dose-dependent manner [2–4]. The causal nature of this observation is an intense topic of debate, and with the variability in drinking guidelines and low-risk thresholds across the literature, the ambiguity and uncertainty around alcohol and cardiovascular health remains.
We read with great interest the commentary presented by Wise  on a recent study by Wood et al in the Lancet , aimed at characterizing the risk-thresholds for lowest risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease in current alcohol drinkers. The investigators conducted individual participant-data analysis from 83 prospective studies encompassing 599 912 current drinkers. Alcohol consumption was characterized into eight predefined categories, where 1 unit equaled 8g of pure ethanol. They observed a positive and curvilinear relationship with alcohol consumption, with the lowest risk for all-cause mortality at levels of 100 g/wk. or less. Drinking above the UK and US limits conferred a reduced life expectancy for both genders at age 40, and reducing consumption to 100 g/wk. was associated with an increased life expectancy by 1-2 years at age 40 .
With growing awareness of the adverse effects of alcohol on individual and global health, low-risk consumption guidelines are an important policy consideration. However, due to the wide cross-national variations in maximum consumption allowances, discrepancies in typical serving sizes, variations in standard drink equivalents, and differences in drinking cultures, the understanding and subsequent impact of drinking guidelines in enabling safe-drinking practices could be undervalued by customers [7,8]. Since the introduction of UK’s drinking guidelines, two cross-sectional studies in the UK’s drinking population have found that the majority of the public was aware of the existence of the guidelines, however knowledge of the recommended limits was surprising low , and adherence to them was transient . In addition, only a subset tracked units of alcohol consumed in both studies. For researchers and physicians, the divergence in standard drink sizes could limit the applicability of screening instruments to other countries without adjustment, such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Alcohol Use Disorder Test (AUDIT), a tool for primary care physicians to identify harmful patterns of drinking in patients . In addition, there is limited data on the physician demographic regarding their knowledge and understanding of drinking metrics such as standard drinks, low-risk guidelines, and their comfortability in counselling patients on this topic .
Low-risk consumption guidelines have been defined in at least 37 countries . They are commonly reported in standard drinks (SD), which are further expressed in ounces of beer, wine, and spirits. The AUDIT and WHO assume 1 SD to be 10g of pure ethanol, with a recommendation to consume ≤2 SD per day with at least 2 non-drinking days per week . In the UK, 1 SD equates to 8g of pure ethanol, with a recommendation to not exceed 14 SD per week, spread evenly over 3 days or more . The US Dietary Guidelines define 1 SD to contain 14g of pure ethanol, 40% larger than the WHO limit, with a recommendation to consume ≤1 SD per day for women and ≤2 SD for men . In addition, the American Heart Association , American Society of Hypertension , American Stroke Association , and the American Diabetes Association  define their own drinking guidelines, in the realm of 1-2 SD per day across the societies. Even after epidemiological agreement of a light-to-moderate drinking pattern to confer the lowest risk, forming guidelines often involve judgement based on a myriad of other factors, where variability is inevitable.
The authors should be commended for their important addition to the literature , and Wise for an insightful comment . Taken together, the study by Wood et al  substantially adds to the body of alcohol and cardiovascular health literature by defining low-risk drinking thresholds.
1 O’Keefe EL, Di Nicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH, et al. Alcohol and CV Health: Jekyll and Hyde J-Curves. Prog Cardiovasc Dis 16 February 2018. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2018.02.001
2 Haseeb S, Alexander B, Baranchuk A. Wine and Cardiovascular Health: A Comprehensive Review. Circulation 2017;136:1434–48. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030387
3 Baranchuk A, Haseeb S, Alexander B. Wine Consumption and Cardiovascular Health: An Expert Opinion. International Society of Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy 2018.http://www.iscpcardio.org/expert-opinions/wine-consumption-and-cardiovas... (accessed 1 May 2018).
4 Rehm J, Roerecke M. Cardiovascular effects of alcohol consumption. Trends Cardiovasc Med 2017;27:534–8. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2017.06.002
5 Wise J. Study backs alcohol UK limit of six glasses of wine a week. BMJ 2018;361:k1630. doi:10.1136/bmj.k1630
6 Wood AM, Kaptoge S, Butterworth AS, et al. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. The Lancet 2018;391:1513–23. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X
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11 Higgins-Biddle JC, Babor TF. A review of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), AUDIT-C, and USAUDIT for screening in the United States: Past issues and future directions. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse 2018;0:1–9. doi:10.1080/00952990.2018.1456545
12 Haseeb S, Alexander B, Baranchuk A. Response by Haseeb et al to Letter Regarding Article, “Wine and Cardiovascular Health: A Comprehensive Review”. Circulation 2018;137:1880–1. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.033086
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Competing interests: No competing interests
The dominant conclusion of the Lancet study 1, widely reported in the media, is that current alcohol guidelines may not be low enough. But the data in the Appendices to the Lancet article reveal a far more nuanced picture. Applying a one size fits all public health statement to alcohol is risking throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Most striking is the huge difference in mortality risk when frequency of drinking is taken into consideration. Drinking on no more than 2 days per week was associated with an increased risk of mortality when weekly intake was 125 g alcohol or more (about 16 units in the UK). But when alcohol intake was spread out over more than 2 days per week there was a reduced mortality risk even with levels up to 200 g/week (eFig. 17). This is equivalent to 25 units of alcohol - far more than the current recommended limit of 14 units.
Secondly, risk of mortality from wine was far lower than for beer or spirits, with no adverse effects on mortality up to at least 150 g/week (9 glasses) (eFig. 17 ). In addition, wine did not have the adverse effects on cardiovascular outcomes associated with spirits (eFig. 18). Combining the benefits of wine with the benefits of spreading out intake over several days would probably produce an even greater benefit. These findings are consistent with the significantly reduced risk of total mortality associated with following a Mediterranean diet drinking pattern - moderate alcohol intake spread out over the week, a preference for red wine drunk with meals, little intake of spirits, and an avoidance of binge drinking 2 .
It would be rather odd if paracetamol was prescribed without making clear that only a few tablets should be taken each day, not all consumed on a Friday night. Failing to adequately communicate the huge difference, between on the one hand binge drinking on spirits, and on the other moderate wine intake with meals, is to miss out on conveying a crucial public health message.
1. Wood AM, Kaptoge S, Butterworth AS, et al. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. Lancet 2018;391(10129):1513-23.
2. Gea A, Bes-Rastrollo M, Toledo E, et al. Mediterranean alcohol-drinking pattern and mortality in the SUN (Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra) Project: a prospective cohort study. The British journal of nutrition 2014;111(10):1871-80.
Competing interests: No competing interests
Yet another headline-grabbing study which ignores the confounding effect of early life stress.
Competing interests: No competing interests