Having more than six drinks per week leads to an increased risk of a host of health issues, including cancer, according to new proposed guidelines published Monday.
Any level of alcohol consumption had a net negative impact on health for almost every disease reviewed by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a national advisory organization, according to their new report. This includes heart disease, several types of cancer and liver cirrhosis.
The health risks become “increasingly high” when someone has six or more drinks per week. And for women who have three or more drinks per week, the risk of health issues increases more steeply compared to men, research shows.
“The key message out of this project is that when it comes to alcohol, less is better. Everyone should try to reduce their alcohol use,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at CCSA and co-chair of Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.
It’s no secret that alcohol is not good for you, experts say. It’s been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans) for decades by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
But not everyone is aware that alcohol use has been associated with numerous health risks, including at least seven types of cancer, Paradis said.
That’s why the guidelines — which the public can weigh in on— speak to the health risks and how that increases with the number of drinks.
Dr. Fawaad Iqbal, a radiation oncologist at Durham Regional Cancer Centre in Oshawa, Ont., who was not involved with the report, said he strongly supports its overall messaging.
“These updated, evidence-based guidelines will save lives. I commend the work of the team that put this all together,” said Iqbal in an email interview after the report was released.
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‘People in Canada have a right to know’
But experts say the risks associated with alcohol consumption need to be made more clear beyond these recommendations. Iqbal and those who worked on CCSA’s guidelines want to see cancer warnings and the number of standard drinks listed on alcohol bottles or cans.
“Whether consumers choose to use that information or not, it’s up to them. But there’s plenty of evidence out there that says if you say front and centre, ‘this is damaging your health and you could get cancer because of this,’ people will change their decision-making about just how much they’re drinking,” Iqbal said.
Since the last alcohol drinking guidelines were released in 2011, the evidence around health issues and alcohol consumption has changed a lot, Paradis says. That’s why four committees —including three scientific expert panels— were formed to review the evidence for updating the guidelines.
Those involved looked at several dozen studies on alcohol and health issues as part of the new guidelines. Several data sources —including death and disability data for 2017 to 2019 from Statistics Canada —were used to form the risk calculations. They also used mathematical modelling, according to the report.
Although all levels of alcohol consumption come with some risks, their report shows a range of risks depending on how many glasses of wine or bottles of beer a healthy person has each week.
They found that health risks are negligible or low with two or fewer glasses of wine per week. If the number of drinks goes up to somewhere between three and six standard drinks a week, the risk of health issues is moderate.
But having more than six glasses of wine or ciders per week makes the risk of health issues “increasingly high.”
For example, men who consume about five grams of alcohol per day on average have almost a 16 per cent increased risk of liver cirrhosis. That risk balloons to more than 306 per cent if the man has 50 grams of alcohol per day, according to the report.
“We know that’s going to be surprising and some people might even be upset about that. But we did not embark on this project to win a popularity contest. We’re scientists,” said Paradis.
“Our whole perspective throughout this project is that people in Canada have a right to know.”
Drinking increases breast cancer risk
The new findings are significantly different from the 2011 guidelines created by CCSA. Those suggested no more than 10 standard drinks a week for women and 15 standard drinks a week for men.
Paradis says one of the reasons the 2011 recommendations were higher was because of a belief that alcohol had some good health benefits for cardiovascular disease. But now, new research shows that is probably not the case anymore, she said.
“Actually, in our own study, we found that alcohol was neither good or bad at low levels for protection against some cardiovascular diseases. At higher levels, it really has a detrimental impact,” she said.
Alcohol use in Canada causes nearly 7,000 cases of cancer deaths each year in Canada, according to the report.
And specifically for women, having three or more drinks a week comes with a greater risk of health issues when compared to men, according to the report’s data. They include several reasons why, including differences in metabolism.
The risk of breast cancer increased with more alcohol, Paradis said, adding that one in 35 women will die because of breast cancer in Canada.
“If you take six drinks per week, you increase by 10 per cent your chances of being that woman,” she said, adding that the risk starts at one or two standard drinks per week.
Allison Garber, a communications business owner in Halifax and sobriety advocate, said she wishes she knew more about the increased cancer risk sooner. Both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer, and she lost her mother to cancer.
“I think that this report is going to save a lot of lives,” she said, adding it’s good to see an increased focus on education.
“I do believe that it’s an individual choice whether people drink alcohol or not, but I I do think that it’s fundamentally important that that is an informed choice.”
Label the health risks
Some Canadians have reported increased binge drinking over the last few years.
A Statistics Canada survey released in 2021 shows many Canadians are not just pouring themselves a single glass. Almost one in five who responded to the survey said they consumed five or more drinks — the equivalent of a bottle of wine — on the days they reported drinking alcohol in the previous month.
The agency says this is higher than before COVID-19 hit.
The CCSA report was started before the pandemic, but Paradis says adults need to know more about the alcohol they purchase and how it can affect their health.
Paradis and the other authors of the report, along with Iqbal, say bottles of wine and other alcohol should clearly outline the health warnings and nutrition information. She adds that people need to be able to count their drinks to know how much alcohol they’re consuming, but can’t do that if it’s not explicitly outlined on a label.
“The main message that we want to put out with this is that overall, alcohol is not good for your health and that when it comes to alcohol, drinking less is better,” Paradis said.
The guidelines will likely become official guidance sometime this fall.