Is it safe for women to drink alcohol? Last year that question was posed in an Ivy League medical blog attempting to quell growing fears regarding moderate drinking. Fortunately, the author concludes a drink a day for women is generally healthy.
It’s no surprise such a topic is up for discussion. Women are being told left and right by new studies or media reports that they can no longer enjoy a glass of their favorite beer, wine or spirit without the risk of being prematurely escorted to their deathbed.
In July, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a report that found women could improve their mental health by quitting drinking. Other recent studies have concluded one or two drinks a day can increase the risk of breast cancer. Another meta-analysis claims half a glass of wine per day poses similar health risks for a woman as smoking two packs of cigarettes a month.
These studies have spurred public panic. Headlines like “How many cigarettes are in a bottle of wine?” and “There’s a Deadly Link Between Alcohol and Breast Cancer” are plastered on Facebook walls and posted by blue checkmark Twitter handles across the websphere.
On its face, the data divulge major health concerns for women that merit examination. However, after a deeper dive, it’s clear these reports should be taken with a grain of salt. They are rooted in unsound science or present the data in a misleading way.
Take for example the recent study linking alcohol to diminished mental health for women. Among its faults, the findings are based on survey-based self-reporting—which carries considerable limitations. Participants may unconsciously misclassify their drinking habits as moderate, when in fact they consume above that level. It’s difficult for the untrained eye to identify the total ounces in a beverage, as well as its actual alcohol content. One large glass of beer may actually represent two servings of alcohol. And obviously the reverse is also true.
The other reports are similarly flawed.
In the U.K. study equating the health effects of moderate drinking to that of smoking, the authors were unable to totally control for cigarette usage among the population of women who drank. How can health consequences be attributed accurately to one substance or another with this problematic methodology?
The final report mentioned above linking moderate drinking to breast cancer is a lesson in sloppy math from the media. By reporting the findings in the form of relative risk, rather than absolute, the health danger appears greater than it actually is. Although the study concludes a daily drink induces a roughly 10 percent increase in the likelihood of a breast cancer diagnosis, in absolute terms , that means a 40-year-old woman who enjoys one daily drink increases her risk by about one-sixth of one percentage point.
Focusing attention on a relatively tiny fraction of risk while other factors — notably diet and genetics — play a more robust role is foolish.
For decades, the lion’s share of research dictated that moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle—linked to modest health benefits like a reduced risk of heart disease. A handful of new studies rooted in questionable methodologies should not instantly overturn what up until now has been the scientific consensus.
All studies exploring women’s health should be taken seriously. And abusing alcohol can have major repercussions. But it’s clear when examining the comprehensive body of science that alarm over one daily drink is misplaced. Healthy Americans, regardless of gender, can continue to raise a glass in moderation.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.