Alcohol and Tobacco: Better in moderation or not at all?

With the recent publication of some novel scientific research, Mark Jackson asks whether it’s better to enjoy alcohol and tobacco in moderation or not at all.

It is no secret that regular alcohol consumption is harmful to your health and may actively reduce your lifespan. The conclusion from a recent study conducted at the University of Washington and published in the Lancet medical journal may come as a surprise to many, however. This study found that the safest level of alcohol consumption may in fact be none, an unusual stance for the field of toxicology, where trace amounts of toxins are often accepted to be harmless.

“there is no clear-cut answer to the question of whether alcohol is better in moderation or not at all.”

The topic of alcohol consumption is not as black and white as the findings of this study would seem to suggest however, and it appears as though there is no clear-cut answer to the question of whether alcohol is better in moderation or not at all. The main reason for this being the vast amount of contradictory research conducted over the years. Some studies have even concluded that moderate alcohol consumption (a couple of drinks a day) may actually have protective effects on some conditions, including ischemic heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings have been heavily scrutinised, inspiring studies such as the one published in the Lancet.

The study in question found that between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine, alcohol was the leading risk factor for deaths in 2016. It found that 3.8% of female deaths and 12.2% of male deaths were linked to alcohol in everything from road injuries to self-harm and even tuberculosis. In the more mature age bracket, it was found that women and men over fifty were much more likely to die of cancer caused by alcohol consumption than any other disease, with just over a quarter of women and a fifth of men succumbing to such deaths.

According to the study, alcohol use is also associated with “far more health loss for males than for females”, a fortunate reality considering the otherwise pessimistic finding that Irish women are seventh in the world for daily alcohol consumption - a ranking even higher than that of Irish men. Sustained alcohol consumption like this has also taken its toll on global populations, with 10% of global deaths in the fifteen to forty-nine-year-old age category resulting from alcohol intake.

In a separate study conducted by University College London (UCL) and published in the European Heart Journal, it was concluded that teenagers of age seventeen who drink and smoke have much stiffer arteries than average and thus are much more likely to suffer from heart and blood vessel problems as they age compared with their non-drinking, non-smoking counterparts. The study assessed 1,266 individuals at age 13, 15 and 17 through questionnaires and non-intrusive medical assessments.

There was substantial evidence from the UCL study to suggest that their arteries would return to normal if teenagers ceased their habitual drinking and smoking, meaning they would be as well off as their non-drinking, non-smoking peers.

“the newest research strongly suggests that the less you drink and smoke, the more likely you are to live a healthier, more wholesome life.”

Footnotes of the study maintained that the research gave more credibility to the active discouragement of youths to continue drinking and smoking in their daily lives. Naturally, the study has limitations considering its observational nature. Its conclusions are no less noteworthy, however, especially given the fact that 23.8% of their participants at age 17 were smokers and 75.6% of their participants drank 3-9 drinks in a typical day.

Equipped with these facts, it is easy to see that alcohol and tobacco use is extremely prevalent and is doing us more harm than we know. With more alcohol readily available in supermarkets and through online ordering, it doesn’t appear as though the Irish culture of casual drinking and smoking is going to end any time soon unless we redefine our perception of alcohol and tobacco as forms of escapism and casual indulgence. Irish universities, social media and popular culture have major roles to play in relabelling regular alcohol and tobacco consumption as unattractive and harmful, a concept scientists are continuously trying to nudge into the mainstream.

The question of whether it is better to enjoy these substances in moderation or abstain from them completely is totally up to individual decision, but the newest research strongly suggests that the less you drink and smoke, the more likely you are to live a healthier, more wholesome life.