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Glass of wine after a long day? Reduce it to a glass and a half ... for the whole week

Reducing the recommended amount of alcohol people should drink a day to half a unit, equivalent to 50ml of wine or a quarter of a pint of lager, would save 4,600 lives a year.

An Oxford University study found that the beneficial effects of alcohol have been exaggerated and thousands of deaths from cancer and liver cirrhosis could be prevented.

Currently women are recommended to drink no more than two to three units a day, equivalent to a glass and a half of wine, and men no more than three to four units, with two alcohol-free days a week.

"A couple of pints or a couple of glasses of wine per day is not a healthy option," lead author Dr Melanie Nichols said.

This level may "not be compatible with optimum protection of public health", the research published in the journal BMJ Open found.

The authors stopped short of calling for the guidelines to be changed, but concluded: "It is likely that government recommendations would need to be set at a much lower level than the current 'low risk' drinking guidelines in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for public health."

The researchers calculated what impact changing average alcohol consumption among regular drinkers and increasing the percentage of non-drinkers would have on the health of England's population as a whole.

They looked at 11 conditions where at least some of the cases are known to be caused by alcohol consumption, including stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy and five cancers.

In 2006, 170,558 people died from the 11 conditions at least partially associated with alcohol.

Two thirds of the population drink and if they all consumed five grams of alcohol per day, there would be a 3pc drop in deaths from the 11 conditions, the equivalent of 4,579 per year.

At this level of consumption, there would be 843 additional cardiovascular disease deaths because alcohol is known to have a small protective effect on the heart, but this would be more than offset by 2,600 fewer cancer deaths (8pc decrease), and almost 3,000 fewer liver cirrhosis deaths, a drop of almost half.

Dr Nichols of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group in the Department of Public Health at Oxford University, said: "Although there is good evidence that moderate alcohol consumption protects against heart disease, when all of the chronic disease risks are balanced against each other, the optimal consumption level is much lower than many people believe."