New alcohol research shows that drinking small amounts can still be harmful to your health (2023)

Health Canada had previously said a low-risk amount of alcohol was about 10 drinks a week. Now, citing some of this research on the effects of alcohol, a government advisory panel has suggested reducing it to two drinks a week. dr Tim Naimi of the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research spoke to William Brangham about the analysis.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're nearing the end of Dry January, when millions of Americans will abstain from alcohol for the entire month.

    This annual ritual underscores the mounting evidence that consuming alcoholic beverages, even in relatively small amounts, can be harmful to health.

    William Brangham has the latest, including how Canada is considering radically revising its drinking recommendations.

  • William Brangham:

    That's correct.

    Canadian health officials had previously said about 10 drinks a week was a low-risk amount of alcohol. But more recently, citing some of this research on the effects of alcohol, a government advisory board suggested reducing it to two drinks a week.

    To learn more about all of this, I join Dr. Tim Naimi. He is an alcohol epidemiologist and director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

    dr Naimi, nice to have you on NewsHour.

    Before we get to this changing guide, can you briefly remind our audience what we know about the effects alcohol has on us?

    dr Tim Naimi, University of Victoria: Sure.

    Well, alcohol is one of the leading behavioral causes of health problems and deaths, as well as some social problems and economic costs ranging from injuries and accidents to cancer and heart and cardiovascular disease.

    So it causes a variety of health effects. And of course these have long been valued at high – high levels of consumption, but also for some lower levels.

  • William Brangham:

    It also has implications for our mental health, I assume?

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:


    Well, there's a really complicated but important relationship between alcohol and things like depression and anxiety in particular. So, yes, alcohol can play a causative role in these, but it can certainly also aggravate or exacerbate existing mental illnesses, particularly depression.

  • William Brangham:

    I would like to talk briefly about the dosage. You mentioned that in passing.

    But is it true that these harmful effects increase the more you drink, so a little is better than a moderate amount than a lot?

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:


    When it comes to health, less is more. And that's actually the main thing - the main message emerging from the new Canadian guidelines. It's not like anyone has to commit to a number. We know that the lowest risk comes with a really small amount of alcohol. Even two drinks a week are the lowest risk.

    But the main message behind the new Canadian guidelines and the main message - and I think that is consistent with other guidelines. The most important point to keep in mind is that consuming less is good for your health, no matter how much you drink. And we really want to reach people.

    And I think that's -- we're talking about the public health community in general, not just for people who already drink a little and maybe cut back, but for people -- if you're having six or seven drinks a day, and you can down to three or reduce four, that would be fantastic for your health.

    So I just want to reach a broad spectrum of drinkers. That's the basic idea.

  • William Brangham:

    It must still come as a bit of a shock that something so prevalent in our society can be linked to cancer and heart disease and all those other things?

    I mean, I think people think about drunk driving and they get it...

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:

    To the right.

  • William Brangham:

    ...and maybe drunk violence and things like that, but cancer and heart disease, do you think the public fully appreciates those, those risks?

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:

    That's right, William.

    Well I think you're right. I think people are aware of the nature of driving incidents and accidents. You may know of cirrhosis of the liver. And maybe they know about fetal alcohol spectrum birth defects and whatnot. But I think they are much less aware of cardiovascular disease and cancer risk in particular.

    I should mention that alcohol is actually classified as a Class 1 carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, by the World Health Organization. So this is the same category as benzene and tobacco smoke. And some studies suggest that one drink of alcohol has about the same carcinogenic potential as one or two cigarettes, depending on gender.

    For example, the risk of breast cancer increases by between eight and ten percent with every additional drink that a woman consumes on average per day. So, that's an important thing. And we know from surveys that only a small part of the population understands the connection with cancer.

  • William Brangham:

    But help me to understand. We - it feels like we've been given conflicting guidance.

    I think a lot of people remember being told that moderate amounts of alcohol can be beneficial for certain people. Years ago there was this infamous study that red wine was good for the heart.

    Are they just things – have they now fallen by the wayside?

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:

    Even in these studies, the risks increased from very small amounts of alcohol.

    So it's really an argument about how low is that point? So overall I think the science is consistent that less is better, down to very small amounts. Yes, I think - I think some of that science has fallen by the wayside.

    And without getting deep into the weeds, the basic idea is that if someone — say, a red wine drinker in their 50s who's only had a small amount their whole life, is actually someone, these people tend to be super healthy and have lots social benefits, and perhaps the red wine is a reflection of that, and - but not its cause. And that is the basic problem of previous research on this.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned before, many Americans make this dry January.

    Is there evidence that pausing for a 30 day window is useful?

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:

    Well, it depends on what you're up to, right?

    I think the main idea behind Dry January or, this year, Damp January seems to be in vogue, which means sort of cut back but doesn't stop entirely, in a way these are sort of experiential versions of most of the guidelines the world recommends, ie to limit your alcohol consumption.

    And some people can experience instant changes. I mean, the main idea is just to explore things or activities or people that are less alcohol-centric, if you will. Some people get some sleep benefits right away. Some will lose some weight depending on how much they drink.

    But the idea is to explore it. There is evidence that people who do not intend to drink slightly less than they did in early January, even six months later. So it could sort of -- the idea here is that we just review the relationship with alcohol and maybe backtrack a bit after the time when alcohol is always at its peak in the US.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, dr. Tim Naimi from the University of Victoria, thank you for being here.

  • Dr. A.S. AS. Tim Naimi:

    Oh, it's great to be on NewsHour. Thanks for the invitation.

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