Weighing the risk of moderate alcohol consumption

August 24, 2018


Statistics  /  , ,

A research study on mortality and alcohol consumption is making the rounds. Its main conclusion is that all alcohol consumption is bad for you, because of increased risk. David Spiegelhalter, the chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, offers a different interpretation of the data:

Let’s consider one drink a day (10g, 1.25 UK units) compared to none, for which the authors estimated an extra 4 (918–914) in 100,000 people would experience a (serious) alcohol-related condition.

That means, to experience one extra problem, 25,000 people need to drink 10g alcohol a day for a year, that’s 3,650g a year each.

To put this in perspective, a standard 70cl bottle of gin contains 224 g of alcohol, so 3,650g a year is equivalent to around 16 bottles of gin per person. That’s a total of 400,000 bottles of gin among 25,000 people, being associated with one extra health problem. Which indicates a rather low level of harm in these occasional drinkers.


The paper argues that their conclusions should lead public health bodies “to consider recommendations for abstention”.

But claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention. There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving.

Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.


See also Spiegelhalter talk about weighing risk against benefits in a video from 2010.