Beer also found to raise pancreatic cancer risk. creative commons/ChrisGoldNY

A study by Oxford University researchers suggests that slashing alcohol consumption to just half a unit a day - a few sips of wine or weak beer - could save as many as 4,600 lives every year in England.

The study, published in thethe journal BMJ Open, says an optimum level of consumption could lead to fewer deaths across the UK from diseases connected to drink. Previous studies have often looked at the separate effects of alcohol on heart disease, liver disease or cancers in isolation.

A half a unit of alcohol is as little as a quarter of a glass of wine or a quarter of a pint. That is much lower than current government recommendations of between three to four units a day for men and two to three units for women.

"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," stated lead author Dr Melanie Nichols of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group in the Department of Public Health at Oxford University.

According to the report, the team used mathematical methods to assess what impact changing average alcohol consumption would have on deaths from 11 conditions known to be at least partially linked to alcohol. The conditions under study included coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy and five forms of cancer.

Statistics revealed that over 170,000 people in England died from these 11 conditions in 2006 and ill-health linked to alcohol is estimated to cost the NHS in England £3.3bn every year.

The researchers used information from the 2006 General Household Survey on levels of alcohol consumption among adults in England. They combined this with the disease risks for differing levels of alcohol consumption as established in large analyses of published research.

They found that just over half a unit of alcohol a day was the optimal level of consumption among current drinkers. They calculated this level of drinking would prevent around 4,579 premature deaths, or around 3% of all deaths from the 11 conditions.

The number of deaths from heart disease would increase by 843 but this would be more than offset by around 2,600 fewer cancer deaths and almost 3,000 fewer liver cirrhosis deaths.