Risks and Benefits

A major impediment to public-health-oriented alcohol policymaking is the public perception around the health benefits of alcohol consumption. 


Despite substantial evidence that alcohol is a determinant of poor health, several past studies have suggested that some moderate alcohol use may be associated with a lower risk of heart disease in some populations.[44] Newer research has revealed limitations in earlier studies and challenges the conclusions that moderate consumption has a net health benefit [4, 45, 46]. Nonetheless, the earlier findings have detracted from clear messaging about the public health risks of alcohol by conveying the impression that alcohol consumption can, on average, be health-promoting. Some governments even adapted policy in response to these findings that recommend light or moderate alcohol use to lower the risk of heart disease. [46]

But most recently, in light of new findings linking cancer and alcohol use, some countries have tightened their guidelines: [14, 17, 47]

  • The 2014 European Code against Cancer indicates, for the first time, that no level of alcohol use is safe with respect to cancer.[17]

  • In 2016, the United Kingdom changed 20-year-old advice on moderate use of alcohol and its benefits to the heart, calling the benefit less than previously thought and issuing new guidelines saying alcohol raises the risk of certain cancers.[47]

  • South Korea and Australia, citing possible cancer risks, have tightened their recommendations about alcohol consumption. Australia’s current guidelines state that there is no level of consumption that can be guaranteed as safe or risk-free.[14]

Meanwhile, the alcohol industry uses any limited evidence of health benefits to fuel doubt about cancer risks, often conducting its own research to bolster the evidence. Unsurprisingly, studies show that industry-sponsored research tends to favor the interests of the funder.[48] The most recent comprehensive, systematic review of evidence–—a highly robust, meta-analysis—asserts that the net risks of alcohol consumption outweigh any benefits.[4]

Given the extent of alcohol attributable NCDs, injury and infectious diseases, no possible health benefits justify promoting alcohol use.
— NCD Alliance [49]