Leading article: The message is moderation

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With health advice, it is often a case of one step forward, two steps back.

For years we have been told that moderate drinking is good for us, on account of its beneficial effect on the heart. Two to three drinks a day for a man and one to two for a woman reduced the risk of a heart attack. Now one of the largest studies of the link between alcohol and cancer has shown that even moderate drinking increases the risk.

The Epic study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), which is monitoring the links between diet, alcohol and cancer in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany and Denmark, has found that 10 per cent of men's cancers and 3 per cent of women's cancers in western Europe are caused by drinking. That is equivalent to 13,000 cancers every year in the UK. Almost half of these are cancers of the mouth and throat. Oesophageal cancer (of the gullet) is one of the fastest rising in the UK, driven by the increase in drinking. Doctors and health groups are already alarmed at the rise in liver disease.

However, liver disease is caused by sustained heavy drinking over years, the dangers of which are well known. Researchers for the Epic study suggest that thousands of cancers could be prevented if men had the equivalent of no more than two drinks a day and women had no more than one. They went further: many more cancers could be prevented, according to Madlen Schütze, an epidemiologist at the German Institute of Human Nutrition, who led the study, "if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol at all".

So it is swings and roundabouts. Drink moderately, and you reduce your risk of heart disease but increase your risk of cancer. Don't drink and you reduce your risk of cancer but increase your risk of heart disease. What is the rational person to do? Enjoy yourself – but don't overdo it.

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