A new study has confirmed that even occasional alcohol consumption can be terrible for your health – and according to veteran lobbyist Manuel Mangani it’s time for the authorities to rethink. 

“Malta’s national policy on alcohol should be geared to one thing: reducing consumption… Yes, from a policy point of view, we should start treating alcohol like we do smoking cigarettes,” said Mr Mangani, who until recently represented Malta on the EU’s alcohol policy committee.

He was reacting to the findings of a comprehensive study published in international research journal The Lancet this month on alcohol use.

The research has been hailed as unequivocal proof that even the least bit of alcohol can increase your risk of major health complications, debunking the myth that moderate drinking is not bad for you. The Global Burden of Disease study backed up previous research which already showed there was no “safe” level of alcohol consumption, Mr Mangani said.

The team of researchers found that while moderate drinking may protect against heart disease, the risk of cancer and other diseases far outweighed the pros.

The Times of Malta has learnt that the government is in the final stages of drafting its National Alcohol Policy. The document, which is still under wraps, will detail how campaigns are carried out in schools, whether the substance should be subject to health warnings, and other matters regulating the industry. 

Mr Mangani said he had long been calling for a review of the national policy to bring it in line with new scientific research.

The World Health Organisation, he said, first made it clear that alcohol was clearly linked to serious health concerns some two decades ago, yet most EU member states had a lax position on the substance. 

READ: Binge drinkers are keeping medical professionals busy

There has to be a rethink of the way we approach this

“Now we have a clear statement in this study. What needs to happen next is that there has to be a rethink of the way we approach this. First of all we cannot talk of safe amounts of alcohol, but of lower-risk amounts, as we now know for certain that there is no such thing as a safe amount of alcohol,” Mr Mangani said. 

Recently retired after 34 years in the field of mental health and addiction, Mr Mangani today heads the NGO Amethyst, a collective of experts in the field of alcohol abuse and addiction. 

He said other EU member states such as the UK had moved away from using the phrase “safe limits of alcohol” in recent years. 

Meanwhile, countries like Ireland and Scotland have gone a step further, introducing minimum unit pricing. This set a benchmark for how much a single unit of alcohol could cost in a bid to limit ‘cheap booze’. 

READ: How much do you drink? The clues may lie in your national culture

“We know that cheaper alcohol is more problematic, as it is linked to more problem behaviour. Setting a minimum price is a clear and effective way of tackling this issue,” he said.  

Mr Mangani said those raising awareness on alcohol abuse were in agreement that it was time the government adopted the same approach it had on cigarettes. 

This included curbing availability and restrictions on advertising. Should alcohol be advertised at sporting events or be available in areas frequented by children? These were questions that needed to be asked, he said.

How much do Maltese drink?

According to the latest figures, seven per cent of Maltese drink every day, while around one in five drink once or twice a week.  

Half of those who drink at least once a month report they do not drink on weekdays (Monday to Thursday). Consumption is much higher on the weekends, with less than one per cent of this segment refusing alcohol Friday to Sunday and 30 per cent drinking every day of the weekend. 

The number of drinks varies from weekdays to weekends. Three-quarters of those who drink on weekdays consume up to two drinks. For weekends, two-thirds report one to two drinks while a third take three to five.

A third of respondents report binge drinking (up to six drinks at a go) less than once a month. Around one in six report risky drinking once a month.

What the study found

The Global Burden of Disease study looked at levels of alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries, including Malta, between 1990 and 2016. Analysing data from 15- to 95-year-olds, the researchers compared people who did not drink at all with those who had one alcoholic drink every day.

Out of 100,000 non-drinkers, 914 would develop an alcohol-related health problem such as cancer or suffer an injury.

However, an extra four people would be affected if they drank one alcoholic drink a day. For people who had two drinks daily, 63 more developed a condition. And for those who consumed up to five drinks every day, there was an increase to 338 people who developed a health problem.

A drink was defined as 10g of alcohol – a small glass of wine, a can or bottle of beer or a shot of spirits. A single shot of spirits is one unit, and a large glass of wine is three units, as is a pint of beer. 

Alcohol linked to 60 diagnoses

The impact of alcohol consumption on chronic and acute health outcomes is largely determined by two aspects of drinking: the total volume of alcohol consumed and the pattern of drinking, says Charmaine Gauci, the Superintendent of Public Health.

The World Health Organisation states there is no safe alcohol level. The lower the amount and frequency of drinking, the lower the risk. However, WHO does not set limits, because the evidence shows the ideal is not to drink. Alcohol is closely related to around 60 diagnoses, and for almost all there is a close dose-response relationship: the more one drinks, the higher the risk of disease.