Yet another report surfaced this week demonizing alcohol — part of what appears to be an ongoing war on moderate drinking. More specifically, the study, released by Washington University, links moderate alcohol consumption to an increased risk of premature death.
The report is only the latest in a marathon of studies attempting to equate the major consequences of binge drinking to that of moderate consumption.
A recent report from the World Health Organization claimed alcohol was responsible for three million deaths in 2016. In addition to blaming heavy drinking, the analysis also connected moderate consumption with negative health consequences — notably breast cancer.
As a response to the findings, the organization proposed policies it says will mitigate those deaths. The recommendations included the same dusty proposals that have been pushed by anti-alcohol activists since the end of Prohibition — more taxes, advertising restrictions, and further limitations on alcohol availability. These policies might all sound good on paper, but they do little to curtail legitimately dangerous drinking habits.
In August, a study published in The Lancet attributed 2.8 million annual deaths globally to alcohol. Further, it claimed that any amount of alcohol was unsafe to consume. Another report with a similar conclusion was published in the same journal several months prior.
In September, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, after targeted scrutiny, removed language on their website that rightly connected “too much drinking” with an increased risk of several cancers, only to be replaced by broader language implying that any consumption of alcohol could be detrimental to one’s health.
The string of recent developments supporting the connection between one or two drinks a day and crippling health problems has created a symphony of hysteria, leading about a third of Americans to believe that a daily glass of their favorite beer, wine, or spirit will inevitably result in major health issues.
And who could blame them, when headlines such as, “ No amount of alcohol is safe health experts warn,” or, “ 1 in 20 deaths globally is a result of alcohol use,” dominate the news cycle?
Fortunately for the many Americans who enjoy the occasional drink, many of these assertions are overblown and not backed up by the available science.
Yes, it’s true heavy alcohol consumption — five, six, seven drinks a day — can have major health consequences. This has been widely accepted for years. But the opposite has been proven for moderate consumption. Mountains of prior research conducted over decades reveals a link between moderate drinking and modest health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, and all cause mortality.
The disconnect between the lion’s share of previous research and newly founded conclusions should be reason for pause — and rightly so. The correlation between some health problems and moderate drinking is being exaggerated by the presentation of data. Rather than displaying statistical analysis as absolute risk, the numbers are featured as relative.
Take, for example, the probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer. According to one of the recent studies published in The Lancet, this risk increases by roughly 10 percent (relative risk) as a result of a daily drink. But when translated to absolute risk for a 40-year-old woman, the overall chance of being diagnosed with the condition over the following decade increases by only about one-sixth of one percentage point, rising from 1.47 to 1.62 percent.
To put this into context, everything from diet to demographics — or even the age at which a woman gets pregnant — are factors that have been associated with a breast cancer diagnosis. But none of these elements come close to the role genetics plays.
The very modest rise associated by this study to moderate drinking doesn’t merit the observed hysteria and subsequent media frenzy — especially when taking into account the inherent weaknesses and questionable accuracy of these survey-based observational studies.
Moreover, these new studies that tie alcohol to millions of deaths every year are only able to report those high numbers by connecting alcohol consumption to every conceivable cause of death or injury — including crime, traffic accidents, disease, suicide, and other injuries. While it’s plausible that alcohol was involved in some of these instances, it’s unreasonable to believe it was always the dominant factor.
While studies chronicling the link between alcohol and health risks shouldn’t be ignored, it’s critical that fact be separated from exaggeration. Findings should be handled responsibly and put into proper context. With that in mind, we can continue to raise a glass in moderation.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.