Andrew Polmear

How much is it safe to drink?

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…

Ever since I started writing this column I knew that, sooner or later, I would have to write this article. I‘m a doctor as well as a wine lover, and very conscious that alcohol is dangerous. 7% of hospital admissions are primarily due to alcohol and alcohol is partly responsible for another 35%. Most of these patients are neither alcoholics nor necessarily even heavy drinkers. They are drawn from the 20% of the adult population who are ‘risky’ drinkers, ie those who drink more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol a day (male) or 2 – 3 units (female), most days a week. And just to be quite clear, a bottle of wine at 13.5% is 10 units. A 175ml glass of wine is 2.3 units. So it’s not hard to get into the ‘risky’ category.

This information isn’t new. What is new is the understanding that there are no safe limits below which alcohol is harmless. The damage that alcohol does in causing cancers, liver disease, pancreatitis and stroke starts with the first unit you drink. It’s true that alcohol gives you a little protection against coronary heart disease. If you stick to 1 unit a day (unlikely – it’s only half a glass of wine) that benefit outweighs the other risks. As soon as you drink more than that, the risks outweigh the benefit.

What do these risks mean for the individual drinker?

  • The average UK adult has a risk of dying each year of 1%, or 100 in every 10,000. Obviously if you’re 20 it’s less; if you’re 80 it’s more.
  • If you drink 2 units a day that risk becomes 1.05%, or 105 in every 10,000.
  • If you drink 5 units a day it becomes 1.5%, or 150 in every 10,000. And that’s just by sharing an evening bottle of wine with your partner every day – no alcohol at lunch, no G & T before the meal.
  • Regular binge drinking (more than 8 units on one occasion for men, 6 for women) more than doubles the risk of death.

Remember that these are average figures. The older you are and the longer you’ve been drinking the worse the risk becomes. And it’s cumulative; you can’t detox and wipe the slate clean.

That’s pretty bleak for those of us for whom wine is a daily joy, without which no meal is complete. So what have I decided to do?

  • Stick to one 150ml glass a day. I can cope with an increased risk of dying of 0.05%. The rest of the bottle will keep for up to 5 days especially if you seal the bottle with a vacuum.
  • Have tonic (no gin) in bars or at parties.
  • Get used to asking in restaurants if they’ll re-cork the wine so I can take what’s left home (they never refuse; some have a range of snazzy wine bags for the purpose).

It’s a shame, but I’ve had too many patients with cancer of the breast or mouth or oesophagus or larynx, to mention only the main cancers, to be casual about it.

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