The argument has raged for decades - is a daily alcoholic drink good for you or not? That pint of beeron the way home may set you up for the evening, but does it set you up for life?

Conventional medical wisdom has been that moderate drinking - a pint of beer or a couple of glasses of wine a day - boosts health by cutting the risk of heart disease. But new research has muddied the water. A study published yesterday suggests that a daily pint of beer or large glass of wine increases the risk of bowel cancer by 10 per cent. Two pints or two large glasses of wine increases the risk by 25 per cent, according to the results of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study, which questioned almost 480,000 people across 10 European countries about their drinking habits.

Cancer and heart charities were left perplexed over how to interpret the findings, published online in the International Journal of Cancer. Weighing up relative risks is tricky and each charity preferred to highlight the dangers or benefits to their chosen disease.

The British Heart Foundation said there was "some evidence" that moderate drinking had a beneficial effect on heart disease, but if it raised the risk of cancer then "it becomes a matter of personal choice".

Cancer Research UK, which part-funded the bowel cancer study, said moderate drinking only caused a small increase in risk. Cat Arney, senior information officer, said: "The key thing is the more you drink the more your risk goes up."

This leaves ordinary drinkers in a difficult position. In addition to bowel cancer, a drink a day is known to increase the risk of breast cancer in women by 7 per cent, and some other cancers. Bowel cancer is the second-most common form of the disease in men and women with 35,000 new cases a year and 16,000 deaths. Breast cancer is the commonest cancer in women with 40,000 new cases and 12,000 deaths. Heart disease and stroke kill more than 200,000 people a year.

A major study published in the British Medical Journal last year found frequent drinking was an effective way of preventing a heart attack - but only if you were a middle-aged man.

Men who drank daily cut their risk of a heart attack by 41 per cent compared with those who drank on only one day a week, who reduced their risk by 7 per cent.

Among women, drinking on one day a week was enough to reduce their risk almost as much as the men - by 36 per cent. Increasing the frequency of their drinking made no difference.

The study was conducted in Denmark among 50,000 men and women aged from 50 to 65. Previous research has suggested that the benefits of regular drinking are confined to people in middle age.

What the studies all agree on is that people who drink some alcohol live longer than those who drink nothing - teetotallers.

Even this, however, is not as simple to interpret as it appears. Critics have argued that people who don't drink often have a reason for being teetotal, such as that they are reformed alcoholics or suffer from an illness that prevents them drinking. So their poorer health may account for their earlier deaths, not their lack of alcohol.

To drink or not to drink? That is the question. Weighing the risks and benefits of alcohol will remain a matter of individual choice. Heart disease carries the higher odds, but many people fear cancer more.

Raising a glass

* Going to the pub is the most popular social pastime in Britain.

* In modest amounts, alcohol is safe and may be beneficial.

* The Government's recommended "safe" limits are three to four units of alcohol a day for a man and two to three units for a woman.

* At least a quarter of men and a fifth of women drink above the recommended safe limits.

* Deaths resulting from excessive drinking have doubled in the past 20 years.