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OBJECTIVE: To assess the risk of death associated with various patterns of alcohol intake. DESIGN: Prospective study of mortality in relation to alcohol consumption at recruitment, with active annual follow up. SETTING: Four small, geographically defined communities in Shanghai, China. SUBJECTS: 18,244 men aged 45-64 years enrolled in a prospective study of diet and cancer during January 1986 to September 1989. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: All cause mortality. RESULTS: By 28 February 1995, 1198 deaths (including 498 from cancer, 269 from stroke, and 104 from ischaemic heart disease) had been identified. Compared with lifelong non-drinkers, those who consumed 1-14 drinks a week had a 19% reduction in overall mortality (relative risk 0.81; 95% confidence interval 0.70 to 0.94) after age, level of education, and cigarette smoking were adjusted for. This protective effect was not restricted to any specific type of alcoholic drink. Although light to moderate drinking (28 or fewer drinks per week) was associated with a 36% reduction in death from ischaemic heart disease (0.64; 0.41 to 0.998), it had no effect on death from stroke, which is the leading cause of death in this population. As expected, heavy drinking (29 or more drinks per week) was significantly associated with increased risks of death from cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract, hepatic cirrhosis, and stroke. CONCLUSIONS: Regular consumption of small amounts of alcohol is associated with lower overall mortality including death from ischaemic heart disease in middle aged Chinese men. The type of alcoholic drink does not affect this association.