For that reason, it's a little unclear exactly how much alcohol is "safe" to drink; in other words, it's hard to tell what level is associated with a low risk of health problems and substance disorders.
Current guidelines published by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion allow for drinking in moderation. The highest level of drinking in the study - more than 350 grams per week - was linked with a 4- to 5-year reduction in life expectancy.
Consuming between 200-350g per week lowered life expectancy by one to two years, and more than 350g by up to five years.
On average, each unit of alcohol that exceeds the 100-gram limit slices off 15 minutes of a person's life - about the same as a cigarette, said David Spiegelhalter, a professor at the University of Cambridge, in a comment on the report.
For example, US guidelines recommend that men drink no more than 196 grams (7 ounces) per week, or 14 standard drinks. About 50% of the participants admitted to drinking more than 100 grams per week.
The researchers point out that there is no thresholds below which lower alcohol consumption stopped being associated with disease risk but that the threshold for lowest risk was 100g per week.
By contrast, alcohol consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.
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"The take home message is this: less is probably better".
As for the threshold for low-risk drinking, White said, "there's no magic number here". So the researchers, led by Cambridge University's Dr. Angela Wood, used only information about people who were current drinkers "because ex-drinkers include people who might have abstained from alcohol owing to poor health itself, as well as those who have changed their habits to achieve a healthier lifestyle", they wrote.
However, industry figures have rallied against the study, claiming that it overlooks the "mental and social benefits" of sensible alcohol consumption.
The study did not look at the effect of alcohol consumption over the life-course or account for people who may have reduced their consumption due to health complications.
But Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, which partly funded the study, said this did not mean the United Kingdom "should rest on its laurels".
But she added: "This doesn't mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the United Kingdom regularly drink over what's recommended".
"We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target".
Reference Wood, AM et al.
The worldwide team analysed data on almost 600,000 drinkers aged 30-100, from 83 studies in 19 high-income countries.