Drinking alcohol has 'zero health benefits and carries risks for under 40s'

Report estimates 1.34 billion people drank harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020

Of the 1.34 billion people consuming excess levels of alcohol in 2020, 59.1 per cent were aged 15—39 years and 79 per cent were male. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
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Consuming alcohol even in moderation has “zero or very close to zero” health benefits and carries risks for people aged under 40, a study has found.

A report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said strategies aimed at limiting alcohol use should be focused on age rather than sex.

Guidance for recommended alcohol consumption is currently based on the sex of drinkers, with women advised to drink fewer units per week than men.

The research, compiled with data from the Global Burden of Disease worldwide study in 2020, revealed that a harmful level of alcohol consumption was predominant in people aged 15—39.

“We found that the population-level health risks associated with low levels of alcohol consumption varied across regions and were greater for younger populations than for older populations,” read the study, titled “Population-level risks of alcohol consumption by amount, geography, age, sex, and year: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2020", and published in The Lancet medical journal.

“Stronger interventions, particularly those tailored towards younger individuals, are needed to reduce the substantial global health loss attributable to alcohol.

“Given these findings, we recommend a modification of existing policy guidelines to focus on emphasising differential optimal consumption levels by age, rather than the current practice of recommending different consumption levels by sex.”

While young men are at the greatest risk of harmful alcohol consumption, harmful use of alcohol was particularly concentrated in males aged 15—39 in Australasia, western and central Europe.

The findings highlighted the need for tailored guidelines to discourage alcohol consumption among young people, as well as alcohol control policies and interventions targeted at young males.

Make 'informed decisions' on alcohol use

“Our message is simple: young people should not drink, but older people may benefit from drinking small amounts,” said senior author Dr Emmanuela Gakidou, Professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.

“While it may not be realistic to think young adults will abstain from drinking, we do think it’s important to communicate the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their health.”

Of the 1.34 billion people consuming excess levels of alcohol in 2020, 59.1 per cent were aged 15—39 years and 79 per cent were male.

Between 1990 and 2019, 14 countries saw significant increases in the prevalence of harmful alcohol consumption, 55 countries had significant decreases, and in 135 countries the prevalence did not change significantly.

Small amounts of alcohol consumption were associated with improved health outcomes in people who had cardiovascular diseases and in older adults in many parts of the world.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 8:30 AM