In Part 2 of Advice to Sigālaka, the dangers of intoxicant consumption was discussed. Even though the Buddha specifically laid down the last of the 5 precepts to advise lay people not to consume intoxicants, many still ignore it. There are many excuses given, like work requirement, health benefits in drinking 1 glass per day.

This article will attempt to dispel all myths regarding intoxicant consumption, specifically alcohol consumption, by providing scientific evidence to clarify any doubts. This is in hopes of bringing more people to be in line with the Dhamma so as to protect their health and promote spiritual growth.


Spilled wine

“Health benefits”

There was a buzz years ago about the health benefits of drinking red wine. There is a type of antioxidant called resveratrol1 that comes from red grape skins. Hence, studies claimed that red wine can help with maintaining a healthy heart as there are small amounts of resveratrol in it.

Even before red wine became famed for its “health benefits”, there was another alcoholic drink in Asia that promoted good health by drinking a glass a day. Yomeishu, from Japan, makes that claim even up to today. The reason is that Yomeishu contains chinese medical herbs in the drink and these herbs are able to improve various symptoms.

The curious thing about these claims is that it begs the question why Yomeishu is not a regular herbal drink instead of an alcoholic one as all the health benefits of drinking it are derived from the herbs themselves. The same goes for red wine: Why drink red wine when I can get the same health benefits by eating grapes themselves? Eating grapes have even more benefits than drinking wine as they contain fibre which is very important for our gut health. Can it be that its easier to sell their products by getting the customers addicted to the alcohol content in these drinks? It is all speculation but there is nothing stopping these companies from manipulating their customers in order to have higher profits. This should not be surprising as capitalism has a very strong grip on modern societies.

“Academic studies”

There may be some research papers done on the health benefits for red wine but nothing for Yomeishu. However, this Harvard article2 states that red wine can only claim to have associations to good health, not causation.

This is a very important differentiation because associations can be manipulated to lay claims to many things that are very ludicrous. This is why researchers are always trying to looking for causations instead of associations. Causations refer to the data showing them as direct reasons for a phenomenon happening.

Let’s use an example to better understand the difference between associations and causations. One day, you read on the newspaper ‘Eating red meat causes higher rates of vehicular accident deaths!‘ Your first reaction may be shock, surprise or disbelief but it definitely draws your attention. The news report says that studies have found that there is a high occurrence of people dying from vehicular accidents after eating red meat and goes on to give various graphs and statistics from countries around the world. This will make many people believe because there are ‘graphs and statistics’ to back up the claim.

Little do these people know that they have been duped as the interpretation of the data is misleading. Autopsy done on the corpses of accidental deaths will reveal the stomach contents of the victims and it is found that before the accidental death, victims were eating red meat and drinking red wine. Having red wine with red meat like beef is a normal occurrence nowadays, when eating Western cuisines, due to how they complement each other. Therefore, both red meat and red wine have associations with the accidents and interpretation of this data is where a lot of trickeries appear.

Researchers can lay claims that red meat causes vehicular accident deaths because they want to reduce the impact of these studies on red wine. The reason they are doing this is because the studies are sponsored by red wine manufacturers. These manufacturers want to reduce the harm done to the sales of wine so they paid researchers to divert the attention to red meat. This is how you see absurd or intentionally misleading headlines in newspapers like the example given above. Only people who have studied the actual research papers will be able to find the trickeries involved. However, normal people who do not read these research papers will be in awe of the graphs and statistics given and start to believe that red meat causes vehicular accident deaths when in fact it is the red wine that is responsible. Once this happens, it will take an arduously long time to dispel the misconceptions planted in the general public’s minds.

What was described above is exactly what is happening with red wine and Yomeishu. Over years, the news media and advertising kept reiterating that both had “health benefits” and brainwashed the public. Now, there are Buddhists who claim that drinking just one glass of alcohol per day is fine as they still have control over their faculties. Little do they realise that once alcohol releases the inhibitors in the brain, the mildest that can happen is embarrassment while the worst is death.

Health hazards


Dangers of Acetaldehyde

Alcohol content in drinks ranges from 4% in beers to an absurd amount of 95% in vodka. Within alcohol, there is a compound called ethanol. When we drink alcoholic drinks, ethanol is digested by the liver to become acetaldehyde3, which is a toxic chemical. Acetaldehyde is harmful to our body because it damages our cells and prevents the cells from recovering. This is bad news because whenever we fall asleep, the body will try to repair itself so that we can continue functioning and not fall ill. As one continues drinking alcoholic drinks, more acetaldehyde will accumulate in the body and one’s health will deteriorate slowly until finally succumbing to major illnesses without being aware of it.

Hormonal changes

Another health hazard of drinking alcoholic drinks is hormonal changes. Alcohol will change the estrogen levels in the body and causes cells to split more often4. This increase in cells will increase the chances of getting cancer. Furthermore, alcohol will inhibit the breakdown and absorption of cancer preventing nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, folate and carotenoids5 which will make cancer risk even higher especially breast cancer.

Types of cancer

Research has found that alcohol consumption leads to the following types of cancer6:

  • Mouth and throat
  • Oesophagus
  • Stomach
  • Liver
  • Large intestine (Bowel)
  • Breast (For women)

The risks of getting cancer increases as one increases alcohol consumption. Comparing to no alcohol consumption, light drinkers (one drink a day) have increased cancer risks of 1.04 times for breast cancer and 1.3 times for esophageal cancer to as high as 5 times for oral cavity cancer for heavy drinkers (4 or more drinks a day).

Although breast cancer risk seems to be low for light drinkers, it does not mean that it is safe for women to drink. Just because women tend to get breast cancer, it does not rule out the fact that light drinkers can get any type of cancer associated with alcohol consumption. Hence, if one were to look at individual cancer risk, it is best to look at the one with highest risk instead of the lowest. This means that for female light drinkers, the risk of getting esophageal cancer is higher than breast cancer while for heavy drinkers, whether males or females, the risk of getting oral cavity cancer is the highest compared to other cancer types.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that risks for cancer increase multiplicatively if one drinks and smokes for mouth and neck cancer. This is to be expected as alcohol will multiply and damage cells and the toxic chemicals from smoking tobacco, and now marijuana, will wreck havoc in the mouth and neck areas where both substances pass through.

Long recovery from alcohol abstention

There is more bad news for alcoholics. In order to let an alcoholic’s body reduce cancer risk to the levels of a non-drinker, alcohol abstention of least 23 years for liver cancer risk and 35 years for head and neck cancer risk is required7. Although there are still uncertainties in these findings, one can see the extent of damage alcohol can do to our bodies.

Cancer statistics for alcohol consumption


Newest trends

In a report published in 20218, it was found that in the year 2020, alcohol consumption was the cause of more than 740,000 new cancer cases worldwide. This accounts for 4.1% of all the new cancer cases worldwide. The research also found that the lowest rates of alcohol consumption per capita are in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The reason attributed to the low rates is due to Islamic policies which ‘ensured that population alcohol consumption remains low and lifetime abstention rates remain high‘. This is an interesting finding. Both Islam and Buddhism discourage the consumption of alcohol yet Islamic countries are more successful in doing so than Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. This goes to show that only with government policies’ aids will religious rules be adequately kept. If left to their own devices, not many people will willingly abide by religious rules when they have the freedom to choose between satisfying their sensual desires and virtuous precepts.

Another worrying trend mentioned in this study is that there is a rising rate of alcohol consumption in Asian countries especially for women. As women take a bigger share of employments and promotions, they have the tendency to turn to what used to be a male-dominated vice, alcohol consumption. In these regions, breast cancer among women is the highest incidence of new cancer cases.

Light drinkers

In 2019, Japanese researchers looked at the link between limited alcohol consumption and overall cancer risk9. They examined data from 33 Japanese hospitals throughout Japan from 2005 to 2016, which consisted of more than 63,000 patients with cancer. They found that for people taking one drink per day for 10 years, the overall cancer risk increased by 5 percent. For people who drank more per day, the data showed a linear association. This means that the more a person drank, the higher the overall cancer risk.

Across the Sea of Japan, in 2011, Korean researchers did a similar study trying to find the link between light drinkers and cancer mortality10. Their study consisted of more than 330,000 Korean adults free from cancer at the start. In 2021, they published their results and found that risks for cancer mortality for light drinkers were higher than non-drinkers and there was also a linear association between amount of alcohol consumed and cancer risks.

The conclusion consistent with both studies is that ‘there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” regarding cancer risks, so zero alcohol consumption is the lowest risk.

Good health and morality

Happy family

Across all studies, a common conclusion can be found: if a person wants to reduce cancer risks, the best way is abstention from alcohol. There is no two ways about it because any health benefits that can be derived from drinking alcoholic drinks are demolished by the devastating effects of ethanol in our bodies.

When it comes to harms or potential benefits, ethanol is ethanol.
Dr. Tim Naimi (University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research)

For people who are already regular alcohol consumers, even though the rate of recovery from alcohol abstention is slow, it is better to stop now to reduce the risk instead of continuing to drink for the risk to climb upwards even more.

In conclusion, the Buddha is right: Abstention from alcohol, and all other intoxicants, will always be morally, physically and mentally beneficial.

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