For most public health advocates, no amount of alcohol is safe. As they see it, any amount of alcohol increases a drinkers risk for certain negative health outcomes and they have tried to scare people into abstinence with tales of cancer, sexual assault, and fetal alcohol syndrome; all of which are real risks associated with alcohol consumption, but usually only in extreme quantities. Rarely will a public health official address the subtleties of risk or the possible physical and psychological benefits of low and moderate alcohol consumption. To do so would dilute their public health message and put the responsibility of calculating risk and rewards in the hands of individuals.
Particularly irritating for advocates pushing the idea of “no safe level of alcohol” are the decades of research showing that light and moderate alcohol consumption confers some health benefits to drinkers, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular disease. It’s not surprising then that advocates have turned their collective efforts to attempting to debunk the idea that alcohol might in any way be healthy. In January, the UK Department of Health released new alcohol consumption guidelines, rejecting the theory that wine or any other alcohol may be beneficial. And to lend credence to this idea, a new study purports to show that all of that old researcher that it had benefits is “flawed.”
The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, looked at 87 studies examining the risk of mortality associated with alcohol consumption. Without any adjustment, the studies together produced a “J-shaped” curve—what numerous other studies have found, which is that low and moderate drinkers were less likely to die than extreme drinkers and abstainers. However, when these researchers adjusted the studies “for abstainer biases” and eliminated studies that didn’t meet their standard of quality, they found “no significant reduction in mortality risk was observed for low-volume drinkers.” Unsurprisingly, news media have uncritically picked up the story with headlines like “Moderate Alcohol Consumption Isn’t Healthful At All, Study Finds.”
Researchers, however, have been quit critical of the study. The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (a joint effort of Boston University and Alcohol in Moderation) stated that its members, all of whom are researchers in the field, noted “how very selective the authors are in choosing which papers to include in their new analyses: they identified 2,575 studies on the subject, analyzed 87, but then they found some reason to exclude almost all of these studies to reach a conclusion that “there was no significant protection for low-volume drinkers.” In fact, the paper whittled the number of studies it looked at from 87 down to just 6.
Another criticism is that the authors ignored experimental data (animal and human trials) that “described the mechanisms by which moderate alcohol and wine intake have been shown to decrease essentially all of the risk factors for CVD, including low HDL-cholesterol, elevated LDL-cholesterol, endothelial dysfunction, coagulopathies, inflammation, abnormal glucose metabolism, and many others.” And one member called their failure to acknowledge the body of evidence coming to the opposite conclusion and their disqualification of animal and cell culture studies “unconscionable.”
While the authors and other health advocates want people to think that they “should not drink for health,” their study provides no evidence that consuming small amounts of alcohol cannot be considered, as the International Alcohol Forum put it, “one component of a ‘healthy lifestyle.’”