Editorial: A sobering look at the risks of drinking

The latest major study on the health effects of drinking alcohol is, well, sobering: For men and women alike, consuming more than one drink a day shortens your life - perhaps as much as smoking does. That's not very good news here in New Hampshire, which had record-setting liquor sales of nearly $700 million last year. More than $155 million of that ended up in the state's general fund.

The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, involved nearly 600,000 drinkers in 19 high-income nations who did not have a history of cardiovascular disease. What researchers found is that weekly consumption of more than 100 grams of alcohol - about five drinks - increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease and fatal aortic aneurysm. Excessive drinking does appear to reduce the risk of nonfatal heart attacks, but that benefit is more than wiped out by the more serious consequences.

In an interview with the Guardian, University of Cambridge professor David Spiegelhalter assessed the risk of drinking, as presented in the Lancet study, this way: "The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines (the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night) has roughly two years' lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life. This works out at about an hour per day. So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette."

Spiegelhalter adds, "Of course, it's up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile."

And that's an important point. There are a lot of things that are not very good for humans that add pleasure to life: bacon, sunbathing, a perfectly cooked steak, soda, sweets, (did we already mention bacon?), cold beer on a summer day, a couple of glasses of wine in the evening - everybody has their weaknesses. The question people must answer for themselves regarding their not-so-healthy choices is, "How important is this to my overall happiness?" With alcohol especially, that can be a complicated question.

For people who feel as though they have a healthy relationship with alcohol and are content with how much they drink, the warnings contained in the study will not carry much weight - and maybe they shouldn't. Every person on the planet will meet the same fate, so why not do the things you enjoy while you can? But for those who were questioning their consumption even before they found out that it could be shaving years off their life, this may be just the kick in the pants they needed to change their lifestyle.

Heavy drinkers who are considering quitting should begin their journey with their primary care physicians to discuss treatment options. For more casual drinkers who want to better understand their relationship with alcohol, we recommend a visit to Annie Grace's blog, "This Naked Mind" (thisnakedmind.com/blog). Grace, the author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, focuses on the science behind why people drink and how to reprogram the unconscious mind to break their drinking patterns.

We don't expect that the Lancet study will change the behavior of most or even many drinkers in New Hampshire, but it may have a big impact on another group: those who have not started drinking. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting they would be better off if they never take that first sip, and with drinking among American teenagers and college students on the decline, the message seems to be getting through.

The state's lawmakers would be wise to start preparing for a future decline in alcohol revenue.

— The Concord Monitor via the AP


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