Last week, another attempt to demonize moderate alcohol consumption hit the presses. A new study published in The Lancet claimed that not only was alcohol unsafe to drink at any level, but it was responsible for 2.8 million deaths worldwide every year.
The sweeping conclusion was predictably followed by a tsunami of negative headlines.
“No amount of alcohol is safe, experts warn” proclaimed CNBC. “Safest level of alcohol consumption is none, worldwide study shows” trumpeted the Washington Post. “No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health, global study says” declared CNN.
While it’s universally known that heavy drinking is associated with major health consequences, mountains of prior research claims otherwise for moderate consumption. In fact, it’s widely accepted that enjoying a daily glass of your favorite beer, wine or spirit is linked to modest health benefits.
The disconnect between previous bodies of research and the top-line conclusion of last week’s study should give pause to any honest observer and provoke further investigation.
A deeper dive into the data proves the importance of such discernment.
Although usually buried deep in the media’s reporting, The Lancet study does reveal that moderate alcohol consumption is connected to protective health benefits — most notably for heart disease and diabetes. The findings align with earlier reports that suggest moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of stroke, dementia and all-cause mortality.
While the report does go on to show some correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and certain conditions, in many cases, the link is weak.
Take, for example, breast cancer.
The Lancet study reveals a roughly 10 percent increase in relative risk for a woman who enjoys a daily drink. But that number is a bit misleading because it’s relative risk, rather than absolute.
When combined with data from the American Cancer Institute that shows the absolute risk of developing breast cancer for an average 40-year old woman (over the following 10 years) is 1.47 percent, the actual risk for when that person moderately drinks only rises by about a sixth of one percentage point. That’s hardly a large enough rise to fuel the observed hysteria.
But rather than give the data a fair shake, it’s obvious that intentions behind the study are tilted. In order to drown out any of the positive or essentially negligible impacts, the report attempts to connect as many other causes of death and injury to alcohol as possible — including crime, suicide, traffic accidents and other unintentional injuries.
While moderate alcohol consumption may have been involved in some of these instances, it’s absurd to believe that it was the dominant factor.
Take for example drunk driving deaths — which are included in the report’s claimed 2.8 million annual alcohol attributable deaths. The statistics show that although drunk driving remains a major problem that needs to be addressed, moderate drinkers are not the cause.
Roughly 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the U.S. involve a driver at or above 0.15 BAC. And the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.18 BAC — a level equivalent to nine drinks in one hour for the average adult male. It’s evident where the problem lies and it isn’t with those who enjoy a drink with dinner.
In addition to these glaring flaws, the inherent weaknesses associated with survey-based observational studies underpin the conclusions of the entire report. While these investigations can be useful when crafting a hypothesis, observational studies cannot be relied upon to establish causation — chiefly because it’s very difficult to account for the numerous confounding variables that wield their own effect on the results.
It can be easy to get swept up in alarming headlines in this era of click-bait reporting. But it’s more important now than ever to separate fact from fiction. While this study should not be completely overlooked, it’s clear that their attempt to connect moderate alcohol consumption with vast devastation fell short and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.