Wine remains the most benign of the alcoholic beverages, according to the latest research. It has been compared against beers and spirits and is considered the least likely of the three to cause upper digestive tract cancer.
Even a moderate amount of beer or spirits dramatically increases the risk of developing the cancer, researchers in Copenhagen have discovered.
People who drank between seven and 21 glasses of beer or spirits a week increased the risk of upper digestive tract cancer three times, whereas those who drank the same amount, but included wine, reduced the risk to just one half of a per cent compared with non drinkers.
A similar pattern was noted among drinkers who consumed less than 21 glasses of alcohol a week.
The researchers, from the Copenhagen Centre for Prospective Population Studies, analysed the drinking habits of over 15,000 men and 13,000 women for up to 19 years. In all, 156 participants developed upper digestive tract cancer.
Their findings are not the first to link the drinking of spirits to cancer. A Polish study, published last year, found a higher incidence of lung cancer among women who drank vodka.
But wine is not entirely in the clear. In another study published in 1997, researchers discovered that pancreatic cancer was more common among all heavy drinkers, including wine drinkers, compared with people who drank distilled drinks.
And in a landmark study last year, researchers said that wine was no better than beer or spirits in protecting against heart disease (BMJ, 1998; 317: 844-8).
Research into people's drinking habits suggests that a little of what you fancy may do you good. Studies by the Institute of Child Health in the UK has confirmed the well known U shape relation between alcohol and mortality heavy drinkers and abstainers die younger than those who drink in moderation.
Moderate drinkers defined as women who drank between six and 20 units of alcohol a week, and men who drank between 11 and 35 units (with a unit being a half pint of beer, one measure of spirits or one glass of wine) were less likely to suffer ill health, the study discovered.
Although the reason for the U shape is unclear, researchers suggest that abstainers and heavy drinkers may have several characteristics in common. They might, for instance, be unemployed, and financial hardship might stop some drinking altogether, while pressurising others to excess (Lancet, 1998; 352: 877).