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More than 6 drinks a week leads to major health risks, new report shows — especially for women

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Having more than six drinks per week leads to a high risk of health issues including cancer, according to new proposed guidelines published Monday. 

And for women who have three or more drinks per week, the risk of health harms increases more steeply compared to men, research shows. Those findings are why the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a national advisory organization, is recommending that people drink less per week. 

“The key message out of this project is that when it comes to alcohol, less is better. Everyone should try to reduce their alcohol use,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at CCSA and co-chair of Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

It’s no secret that alcohol is not good for you, experts say. It’s been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans) for decades by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

But not everyone is aware that alcohol use has been associated with numerous health risks, including at least seven types of cancer, Paradis said. 

That’s why the guidelines — which the public can weigh in on— speak to the health risks and how that increases with the number of drinks. With alcohol use increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, some health officials say this new report and the guidelines on consumption can further help emphasize the health risks. 

“It’s bringing 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 Centre in Oshawa, Ont.

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‘People in Canada have a right to know’

But experts say the risks associated with alcohol consumption need to be made more clear beyond these recommendations. Iqbal and those who worked on CCSA’s guidelines want to see cancer warnings and the number of standard drinks listed on alcohol bottles or cans.

“Whether consumers choose to use that information or not, it’s up to them. But there’s plenty of evidence out there that says if you say front and centre, ‘this is damaging your health and you could get cancer because of this,’ people will change their decision-making about just how much they’re drinking,” Iqbal said. 

Since the last alcohol drinking guidelines were released in 2011, the evidence around health issues and alcohol consumption has changed a lot, Paradis says. That’s why Paradis and colleagues looked at dozens of studies on alcohol and health issues as part of the new guidelines. 

Although all levels of alcohol consumption come with some risks, their report shows a range of risks depending on how many glasses of wine or bottles of beer a person has 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 goes up to somewhere between three and six standard drinks a week, the risk of health issues is moderate.

But having more than six glasses of wine or ciders per week makes the risk of health issues “increasingly high.”

“We know that’s going to be surprising and some people might even be upset about that. But we did not embark on this project to win a popularity contest with scientists,” said Paradis.

“Our whole perspective throughout this project is that people in Canada have a right to know.”

Drinking increases breast cancer risk

The new findings are significantly different from the 2011 guidelines created by CCSA. Those suggested no more than 10 standard drinks a week for women and 15 standard drinks a week for men.   

Paradis says one of the reasons the 2011 recommendations were higher was because of a belief that alcohol had some good health benefits for cardiovascular disease. But now, new research shows that is probably not the case anymore, she said.

“Actually, in our own study, we found that alcohol was neither good or bad at low levels for protection against some cardiovascular diseases. At higher levels, it really has a detrimental impact,” she said.

Alcohol use in Canada causes nearly 7,000 cases of cancer deaths each year in Canada, according to the report. 

Beer is pictured on the shelves of a liquor store in Vancouver in a July 12, 2019, file photo. New guidelines say that having more than six glasses of wine or ciders per week makes the risk of health issues ‘increasingly high.’ (Ben Nelms/CBC)

And specifically for women, having three or more drinks a week comes with a greater risk of health issues when compared to men, according to the report’s data. They include several reasons why, including differences in metabolism. 

The risk of breast cancer increased with more alcohol, Paradis said, adding that one in 35 women will die because of breast cancer in Canada. 

“If you take six drinks per week, you increase by 10 per cent your chances of being that woman,” she said, adding that the risk starts at one or two standard drinks per week. 

Allison Garber, a communications business owner in Halifax and sobriety advocate, said she wishes she knew more about the increased cancer risk sooner. Both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer, and she lost her mother to cancer. 

“I think that this report is going to save a lot of lives,” she said, adding it’s good to see an increased focus on education.

“I do believe that it’s an individual choice whether people drink alcohol or not, but I I do think that it’s fundamentally important that that is an informed choice.”

Label the health risks

Some Canadians have reported increased binge drinking over the last few years. 

A Statistics Canada survey released in 2021 shows many Canadians are not just pouring themselves a single glass. Almost one in five who responded to the survey said they consumed 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 COVID-19 hit.

Specifically for women, having three or more drinks a week comes with a greater risk of health issues when compared to men, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction report’s data. (Justine Bouln/CBC)

The CCSA report was started before the pandemic, but Paradis says adults need to know more about the alcohol they purchase and how it can affect their health. 

Paradis and the other authors of the report, along with Iqbal, say bottles of wine and other alcohol should clearly outline the health warnings and nutrition information. She adds that people need to be able to count their drinks to know how much alcohol they’re consuming, but can’t do that if it’s not explicitly outlined on a label.

“The main message that we want to put out with this is that overall, alcohol is not good for your health and that when it comes to alcohol, drinking less is better,” Paradis said.

The guidelines will likely become official guidance sometime this fall.

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