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expert reaction to study of alcohol consumption and sickness absence

Researchers, publishing in Addiction, looked at the number of sick days taken by abstainers, low-risk drinkers and at-risk drinkers.


Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK, said:

“This large-scale study suggests that abstainers are more likely to take time off work for illness than drinkers across a range of conditions.  The reasons for this are unclear.  While the authors tried to ensure the figures weren’t skewed by people who stopped drinking for medical reasons, they acknowledge this may still have been an issue.  They also found that abstainers were more likely to be poor, which is a very significant factor in ill-health.

“Nevertheless, the findings are important – not least since the study took place across three countries with very different drinking cultures.  They suggest that drinking at lower risk levels is not associated with increased levels of a number of mental and physical health conditions prior to retirement age.  The study also shows, predictably, that heavy drinking is associated with higher rates of injury and poisoning.

“This study needs to be taken in context.  It is not a measure of lifetime risk, the conditions it deals with are split into broad categories, and it doesn’t capture short-term impacts on work (such as absence, or reduced productivity, due to hangovers).  It doesn’t say abstinence causes ill-health, rather that – for reasons still unclear – abstainers are more likely to also be unwell.  However, while the findings don’t provide evidence that ‘alcohol is good for you’, they do suggest drinking moderately is not likely to lead to missing work through illness.”

Dr James Doidge, Senior Research Associate at UCL, said:

“This study examined the u-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and health, focusing on absence from work due to sickness. It showed that people who abstain from alcohol are absent more often than people who consume alcohol in moderation.

“The most plausible explanation for this is reverse causality; that health problems cause people to drink less, and not the other way around. The best evidence that we have on the effects of alcohol consumption comes from recent genetic studies which, sadly, indicate that any levels of alcohol consumption increases your risk of health problems. This study was purely descriptive and does not in any way challenge that evidence.”

* ‘Sickness absence diagnoses among abstainers, low-risk drinkers and at-risk drinkers: consideration of the U-shaped association between alcohol use and sickness absence in four cohort studies’ by Jenni Ervasti et al. was published in Addiction on Wednesday 6 June 2018. 



Declared interests

Dr James Doidge: none to declare.

None others received

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