To estimate the impact of achieving alternative average population alcohol consumption levels on chronic disease mortality in England.
A macro-simulation model was built to simultaneously estimate the number of deaths from coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertensive disease, diabetes, liver cirrhosis, epilepsy and five cancers that would be averted or delayed annually as a result of changes in alcohol consumption among English adults. Counterfactual scenarios assessed the impact on alcohol-related mortalities of changing (1) the median alcohol consumption of drinkers and (2) the percentage of non-drinkers.
Risk relationships were drawn from published meta-analyses. Age- and sex-specific distributions of alcohol consumption (grams per day) for the English population in 2006 were drawn from the General Household Survey 2006, and age-, sex- and cause-specific mortality data for 2006 were provided by the Office for National Statistics.
The optimum median consumption level for drinkers in the model was 5 g/day (about half a unit), which would avert or delay 4579 (2544 to 6590) deaths per year. Approximately equal numbers of deaths from cancers and liver disease would be delayed or averted (∼2800 for each), while there was a small increase in cardiovascular mortality. The model showed no benefit in terms of reduced mortality when the proportion of non-drinkers in the population was increased.
Current government recommendations for alcohol consumption are well above the level likely to minimise chronic disease. Public health targets should aim for a reduction in population alcohol consumption in order to reduce chronic disease mortality.
Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, while providing modest protection from others. Assessments of the impact of alcohol on individual chronic diseases can therefore result in contradictory advice about the level of alcohol consumption that is optimal for health.
The UK Government currently recommends that men should consume no more than three to four units per day (24–32 g/day of pure alcohol) and women should drink no more than two to three units per day (16–24 g/day). However the net impact of this level of consumption on chronic disease mortality is unclear.
The aim of this study was to estimate the impact of achieving alternative population alcohol consumption levels on chronic disease mortality in England.
Results suggest that the optimum population level of alcohol consumption for minimising chronic disease mortality in England is just 5 g (approximately half a unit) per day.
Current recommendations for alcohol consumption are well above this level and may not be compatible with optimum protection of public health. Substantial reductions in recommendations and in population alcohol consumption levels would be needed to minimise the chronic disease burden associated with alcohol consumption in England.
Community beliefs in the protective role of alcohol in cardiovascular disease are widespread; however, our modelling shows that when multiple conditions are considered simultaneously, the levels of alcohol that would actually be likely to be associated with reduced risk of chronic disease are much lower than is generally accepted or recommended by government.
Strengths and limitations of this study
The study used a detailed modelling approach to synthesise the best available evidence from meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and provide for the first time an estimate of the level of alcohol associated with theoretical minimum risk of a range of chronic diseases, considering both harmful and protective effects simultaneously.
The model is dependent on the meta-analyses selected to define the parameters. Results may vary significantly in other contexts with varying levels of disease, alcohol consumption and other risk factors. Furthermore, results depend on the quality of the available epidemiological evidence, which remains contested in some areas.
The approach used also relies on chronic (average) consumption of alcohol and is not able to take account of to take account of patterns of drinking (eg, binge drinking). Furthermore, the results are based on the assumption of a steady-state relationship between alcohol consumption patterns and RR of disease and cannot estimate the time required between changes in population alcohol consumption levels occurring and the achievement of changes in mortality rates.