Having more than six drinks a week leads to a high risk of health problems, including cancer, according to proposed new guidelines released Monday.
And for women who have three or more drinks a week, the risk of health damage rises more steeply compared to men, research shows. Those findings are why the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a national advisory organization, recommends that people drink less per week.
“The key message from this project is that when it comes to alcohol, less is better. Everyone should try to reduce their alcohol consumption,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at CCSA and co-chair of Canadian Low Risk Alcohol Consumption Guidelines.
It’s no secret that alcohol isn’t good for you, experts say. It has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans) for decades by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
But not everyone knows that alcohol consumption has been associated with numerous health risks, including at least seven types of cancer, Paradis said.
That’s why the guidelines, in which the public can weigh in, talk about health risks and how they increase with the number of drinks. With alcohol use on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, some health officials say this new report and drinking guidelines may help further emphasize health risks.
“It’s putting the hammer down to say, ‘Look, pay attention to what you’re doing.’ And hopefully, people will pay attention,” said Dr. Fawaad Iqbal, a radiation oncologist at Durham Regional Cancer Center in Oshawa, Ontario.
CLOCK | Why don’t most Canadians know about alcohol?‘s cancer risks?
‘People in Canada have a right to know’
But experts say the risks associated with drinking alcohol need to be clarified beyond these recommendations. Iqbal and those who worked on the CCSA guidelines want to see cancer warnings and the number of standard drinks listed on alcohol bottles or cans.
“Whether consumers decide to use that information or not is up to them. But there’s a lot of evidence that says if you say front and center, ‘This is harming your health and you could get cancer from this,’ people say so.” will do”. change their decision-making about how much they drink,” Iqbal said.
Since the latest guidelines for alcohol use were published in 2011, the evidence on health problems and alcohol use has changed a lot, says Paradis. That’s why Paradis and his colleagues analyzed dozens of studies on alcohol and health problems as part of the new guidelines.
Although all levels of alcohol consumption carry some risks, their report shows a range of risks depending on how many glasses of wine or bottles of beer a person drinks each week.
For example, they found that health risks are negligible or low with two or fewer glasses of wine per week. If the number of drinks increases to between three and six standard drinks a week, the risk of health problems is moderate.
But having more than six glasses of wine or cider a week makes the risk of health problems “increasingly high.”
“We know it’s going to be amazing and some people might even be upset about it. But we didn’t embark on this project to win a popularity contest with scientists,” Paradis said.
“Our whole perspective throughout this project is that people in Canada have a right to know.”
Drinking increases the risk of breast cancer
The new findings are significantly different from the 2011 guidelines created by the CCSA. They suggested no more than 10 standard drinks a week for women and 15 standard drinks a week for men.
Paradis says that one of the reasons the 2011 recommendations were higher was because of the belief that alcohol had some health benefits for cardiovascular disease. But now, new research shows that’s probably not the case anymore, he said.
“Actually, in our own study, we found that alcohol was neither good nor bad at low levels for protection against some cardiovascular diseases. At higher levels, it really does have a detrimental impact,” he said.
Alcohol consumption in Canada causes nearly 7,000 cancer deaths each year in Canada, according to the report.
And specifically for women, having three or more drinks a week carries a higher risk of health problems compared to men, according to data in the report. They include various reasons why, including differences in metabolism.
Breast cancer risk increased with more alcohol, Paradis said, adding that one in 35 women will die due to breast cancer in Canada.
“If you have six drinks a week, you increase your chances of being that woman by 10 percent,” she said, adding that the risk starts with one or two standard drinks a week.
Allison Garber, a Halifax communications business owner and sobriety advocate, said she wishes she knew more about increased cancer risk sooner. Both her mother and her grandmother had breast cancer and she lost her mother to cancer.
“I think this report will save a lot of lives,” he said, adding that it’s good to see a greater focus on education.
“I think it’s an individual choice whether or not people drink alcohol, but I do think it’s fundamentally important that it be an informed choice.”
Label health risks
Some Canadians have reported an increase in binge drinking in recent years.
A Statistics Canada Survey launched in 2021 shows that many Canadians are not just pouring themselves a single glass. Nearly one in five who responded to the survey said they had 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 the COVID-19 hit.
The CCSA report was started before the pandemic, but Paradis says adults need to know more about the alcohol they buy and how it can affect their health.
Paradis and the report’s other authors, along with Iqbal, say bottles of wine and other alcoholic beverages must clearly depict health warnings and nutritional information. He adds that people should be able to count their drinks to know how much alcohol they are consuming, but they cannot do so if it is not explicitly described on a label.
“The main message we want to convey with this is that alcohol in general is not good for your health and when it comes to alcohol, drinking less is better,” Paradis said.
The guidelines are likely to become official guidance sometime this fall.