|Weighing Alcohol's Benefits,
August 24, 2000
Alcohol-abuse prevention advocates acknowledge that research
proves moderate alcohol consumption can have positive health
benefits. But they charge that the alcohol industry has overstated
such health claims, and stress that any information on alcohol
benefits should be offset with information on the negative
consequences of alcohol consumption.
Mary Jane Ashley, professor of public health sciences at the
University of Toronto, says that the "weight of evidence in favor of
protection is now substantial," but stressed that alcohol's
protective effects against coronary disease is related only to very
modest levels of consumption -- "as little as one drink every two
days," she says. There are no additional benefits for higher levels
of consumption, adds Ashley, and in fact, the risk of other problems
-- including cirrhosis, cancer, stroke, accidental injury, and
perinatal difficulties -- have been proven to increase along with
Ashley points out that alcohol's protective affects have
primarily been proven in certain subpopulations, especially for
middle-aged men with a high risk of heart disease. Nonetheless, she
and other advocates argue, the alcohol industry has been quick to
seize upon the data and extrapolate the benefits to the population
at large. The wine industry, for instance, has been lobbying U.S.
regulators and lawmakers to include information about the health
benefits of wine on bottle labels.
"Our response should not be to reject the evidence, but rather to
contest the exaggeration of it by the industry," says David Hawks, a
researcher with the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin
University of Technology in Perth, Australia. Hawks charges, for
example, that in addition to erroneously generalizing alcohol's
benefits to all heart disease, the industry also has failed to
acknowledge that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk
of diseases such as breast cancer.
George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the
Center for Science in the Public Interest, is even more blunt in his
assessment of the industry's use of the "healthy alcohol" issue. "The
Wine Institute basically argues that wine is the cure for everything,"
he says. The good news, Hacker continues, is that new dietary
guidelines issued by the U.S. government in 2000 not only point out
the possible health benefits but also the risks of drinking. The
guidelines also no longer use the general term "moderate"
consumption, but specifically state that women should have no more
than one drink daily, and men no more than two.
Indeed, while healthy-alcohol researchers always stress that
moderation is the key to alcohol's positive effects, often little
effort has been made to define what moderate drinking is. Ashley
noted that Canada's Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines call for a maximum
of two alcoholic drinks daily, up to a maximum of nine weekly for
women and 14 weekly for men.
The Canadian guidelines stress that while drinking is an
individual choice, it is a risky one; that the guidelines describe
maximums, not targets for drinkers; that alternative means to
drinking are available to reduce the risk of heart disease, such as
diet and exercise; and that drinkers should contact a doctor if they
are having a problem with alcohol consumption.
Unfortunately, a 1997 survey showed that many Canadians drink in
excess of the recommended limits, says Ashley. The research found
that 25 percent of men and 14 percent of women drank at unhealthy
levels, while 58 percent of men and 66 percent of women stayed
within the guidelines. The balance of those surveyed abstained from
Ironically, while the link between the reported health benefits
of alcohol and consumption levels in developed countries is an issue
of great concern to advocates, it's something of a non-starter in
the developing world, points out Oye Gureje, a Nigerian alcohol
researcher. That's because few people in poor countries are
considering the possible health benefits of drinking when their more
immediate concerns are as simple as finding clean water and adequate
food and avoiding disease, according to Gurije.
The discussion on alcohol's potential benefits and risks was held
at the Global Alcohol Policy Advocacy Conference, held Aug. 3-5 in
Comment: (We attended this conference.)
Eight years later, after many more studies on alcohol benefits
for health, the comment can still be the same.