For decades, moderate alcohol consumption — defined as one daily drink for women and two for men — has been considered part of a healthy lifestyle. The health halo is attributed largely to the cardiovascular benefits associated with moderate drinking, a relationship that has been confirmed by countless studies and is supported by a strong consensus within the scientific community.
The federal government even acknowledges that moderate consumption is unlikely to impede good health. Current Dietary Guidelines — published every five years by the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services — indicate “if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation … and only by adults of legal drinking age.”
Although the acknowledgement doesn’t unconditionally encourage alcohol consumption, it does accommodate the role moderate drinking can provide to healthy adults.
This longstanding conclusion is being hijacked by a new group of neo-prohibitionists whose aim is to demonize alcohol consumption at any level. Over the last few years, some researchers have joined the movement and shaped an alternative narrative that claims even one drink per day will result in major health repercussions.
To plead their case, these agenda-driven academics publish reports rooted in unsound research practices — notably selling survey-based observational meta-analyses as a credible blueprint for proving a cause-and-effect relationship. Controlling for variables that could influence the results — such as smoking or genetic factors — is challenging and often ignored in these scenarios.
One recent example was published by BMC Health. The analysis insinuates the risk of being diagnosed with cancer after regularly consuming half a glass of wine per day is equal to that of smoking two packs of cigarettes a month. Not only were the authors unable to adequately control for smoking in the studied population that consumed alcohol, but the meta-analysis also failed to control for a number of other factors — including age and behavior duration.
Nonetheless, the data from these meta-analyses are shoehorned into deceptive conclusions that are reported as gospel in the media. Since bad news makes good copy, the headlines grab considerable attention and widely hoodwink the public: “Safest level of alcohol consumption is none, worldwide study shows,” proclaimed The Washington Post. “No amount of alcohol is safe, experts warn,” declared CNBC. “A bottle of wine a week is as bad as smoking 10 cigarettes,” reported the New York Post.
These misleading and overblown assertions are not limited to the media echo chamber, but can have a real effect on public policy. The new federal Dietary Guidelines scheduled for publication in 2020 are currently under review and the propaganda campaign around moderate drinking could have an effect on alcohol’s status within the recommendations.
For the first time, the Guidelines will include separate health guidance for different age groups. The new structure gives the anti-alcohol movement the opportunity to exploit the process and limit the benefits of moderate drinking to older Americans. One reason the relationship will likely be misrepresented is because the consequences of binge drinking — behavior commonly practiced by younger adults — is often inadvertently included when investigating the health effects of moderate consumption.
To add insult to injury, one of the anti-alcohol researchers, Dr. Timothy S. Naimi, is the only member of the advisory committee instructing the Guidelines that has any experience examining the role of alcohol in human health. He will have unique influence to incorporate his agenda in the updated Guidelines.
If the body of deceptive research and its architects are successful at manipulating the federal recommendations, an unnecessary hysteria around moderate alcohol consumption will metastasize across the United States — fueling additional anti-alcohol policy pursuits. These could include higher alcohol excise taxes, more regulations around alcohol advertising, additional restrictions on access and the further mischaracterization of responsible drinking in connection to driving.
It is hoped the public and the government are able to separate credible and robust evidence from agenda-driven science. If not, it will surely be a victory for modern day prohibitionists at the expense of responsible consumers.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.