The Lancet has announced that there is no safe level of alcohol intake.
The Lancet has announced that there is no safe level of alcohol intake.

Zero alcohol is the only safe level

HERE'S a story that received such little media coverage last week it might have passed you by. But it's a story that might just save your life.

Tucked away in a recent edition of The Lancet, the world's most prestigious medical journal, was a peer-reviewed study - actually, a meta-analysis of 592 previous studies done over many years - that assessed the link between alcohol and human disease.

The results were astounding, and will rewrite government recommendations as to what constitutes "safe" drinking. Where, 30 years ago, we were told men could consume up to 21 standard drinks each week - and women 14 - before incurring harm, governments currently recommend a maximum of just 14 drinks per week for both men and women.

If you're thinking that's insanely low, that you spill that much getting the bottle open, that you need three drinks just to take the edge off, then you're in for some sobering news. Literally.

After studying the health histories of some 28 million patients, The Lancet has definitively concluded that zero milligrams of alcohol is the only safe daily level. That's right, no alcohol at all. If anyone who's felt the after-effects of the night before still needs convincing, the ultimate medical jury is finally in. Put away previous studies which suggest light consumption of red wine is good for your heart. We now know conclusively that even one serve of alcohol is hazardous to your health.

Still not convinced? Then let cancer, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis, dementia, depression, gout, blood pressure and pancreatitis guide you even if science and common sense do not. That's certainly the case for the almost 6000 Australians who die from - and the 150,000 hospitalised by - alcohol-related diseases each year.

Of course, that excludes the number killed or injured in alcohol-related accidents, and certainly doesn't include the 70,000 Australians who are victims of alcohol-fuelled violence each year, including 20,000 children.

Sadly, alcohol use is the leading cause of death and disability for those aged 15 to 49. That can hardly surprise given 20 per cent of Australians consume more than eight drinks a day, and almost 6 million Aussies "drink to get drunk". Their mates must be so impressed.

It's also little wonder alcohol costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion each year when hospitalisations, work absenteeism, law enforcement and accidents are factored in.

If a new drug appeared on the street today and posed just 1 per cent of the risks of alcohol, there would be a moral panic for the sake of our youth.

Inquiries would be held, editorials would be written and television discussion panels would excoriate this social evil.

So why do we, as a scientifically aware society, ignore these findings and guzzle away in blissful oblivion?

Why don't our state and federal governments - as we have done in past decades around tobacco, drink driving and other social ills - shout "enough is enough, we're going to intervene and save the vulnerable from themselves?"

Why don't all states, as the Northern Territory did last month, establish a "floor price" on alcohol so cask wine costs more than 30¢ per drink? Why don't we cease all alcohol trading at midnight given that alcohol-related violence increases 20 per cent for every hour of trading after 12am?

Why don't we ban alcohol advertising when we know it recruits young drinkers?

Is it because governments reap $6 billion annually in alcohol sales tax revenue?

Or is it because the liquor industry donates eye-watering sums to the major political parties?

Or maybe it's because hotel lobby groups are so powerful that even a whisper of a negative campaign in marginal seats - just as when the pokie lobby scuttled Labor PM Julia Gillard's modest gaming machine reforms - is enough to scare pollies away?

All those reason play a part. But the biggest reason is that 80 per cent of Australians consume this drug (many daily).

Sadly, its use - and abuse - has been normalised since the first days of colonial NSW.

In short, so many Australians are employed by (and therefore complicit in) the manufacturing, distribution, sale, service and consumption of ethanol - a poison used as a chemical solvent, like nail policy remover - that it's impossible (at least in the short term) for a majority to condemn its use.

To do so is to condemn oneself as well as our culture. It's much easier to continue to drink, and lie to yourself that drinking is not harmful.

As Wild Bill Hickok said to a drunken Jack Crabb in Arthur Penn's film Little Big Man: "Any damn fool can drink himself to death."