Does Drinking Within Low-Risk Guidelines Prevent Harm? Implications for High-Income Countries Using the International Model of Alcohol Harms and Policies

J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2020 May;81(3):352-361.


Objective: Many countries propose low-risk drinking guidelines (LRDGs) to mitigate alcohol-related harms. North American LRDGs are high by international standards. We applied the International Model of Alcohol Harms and Policies (InterMAHP) to quantify the alcohol-caused harms experienced by those drinking within and above these guidelines. We customized a recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) analysis to inform guidelines in high-income countries.

Method: Record-level death and hospital stay data for Canada were accessed. Alcohol exposure data were from the Canadian Substance Use Exposure Database. InterMAHP was used to estimate alcohol-attributable deaths and hospital stays experienced by people drinking within LRDGs, people drinking above LRDGs, and former drinkers. GBD relative risk functions were acquired and weighted by the distribution of Canadian mortality.

Results: More men (18%) than women (7%) drank above weekly guidelines. Adherence to guidelines did not eliminate alcohol-caused harm: those drinking within guidelines nonetheless experienced 140 more deaths and 3,663 more hospital stays than if they had chosen to abstain from alcohol. A weighted relative risk analysis found that, for both women and men, the risk was lowest at a consumption level of 10 g per day. For all levels of consumption, men were found to experience a higher weighted relative risk than women.

Conclusions: Drinkers following weekly LRDGs are not insulated from harm. Greater than 50% of alcohol-caused cancer deaths are experienced by those drinking within weekly limits. Findings suggest that guidelines of around one drink per day may be appropriate for high-income countries.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Alcohol Drinking / mortality
  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Developed Countries / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Public Policy