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09/01/2017

Reasons to be Cheerful, Careful and Cautious: Debate over Moderation’s Benefits Continues

Ironically, but predictably, while the science supporting benefits of moderate alcohol consumption continues to build (see our last newsletter), so does the skepticism about that science and whether/how to share that information with the public.  NBC News published a very positive piece in early August: “7 Science-Backed Ways Beer Is Good for Your Health.”  From the outset, NBC stressed moderation and defined it with the Dietary Guidelines, 1 drink per day for women, up to 2 drinks/day for men.   Among the benefits NBC shared: nutritional contribution (protein, B vitamins, phosphorus, folate and niacin); reduced risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease; improved cognitive function; reduced inflammation; stronger bones; longer life; cleaner teeth.  Other than the last (new to us) these benefits have significant scientific support and will be familiar to readers of AII, again bolstered by very recent studies.

NBC included references to over a half dozen specific studies/journal articles in its review.  That wasn’t enough for the watchdogs at HealthNewsReview.org, a group of medical professionals and journalists who aim to “improve the public dialogue” about health care and assist consumers to “critically analyze” health claims made in the media, marketing etc.  Within days of the NBC report, the site published “3 Reasons not to believe these 7 reasons that beer is good for you.”  The author declared that NBC provided “no news” and “not much  science either,” dubbing the article “extremely misleading.”  Why? First, because most of the studies supporting benefits are observational, “cause and effect cannot be established.”  That’s a familiar charge but misleadingly presented here as meaning “most of the studies listed don’t support their health claims.”  Self-reporting is also a problem, the author points out, without noting that self-reporting is almost always underreporting, which would actually extend benefits to heavier drinking.  Second, two of the individuals cited by NBC have “significant conflicts of interest,” simply because industry funded at least one of them.  Again, ostensibly “independent researchers,” like those spreading skepticism, can have their own biases.  Finally, the author had a problem with “surrogate markers,” i.e. impacts on HDL cholesterol or silicon levels, which are used to explain benefits.  These can turn out to be “misleading or worse when used to guide health decisions.”  But even if “surrogate markers” turn out to be misleading, that does not eliminate real links between moderate drinking and health benefits.  What seems to inflame HealthNewsReview the most: NBC omitted “any specific mention of the addictive potential of alcohol” and/or the numerous risks of binge or heavy drinking.  The author also dismisses NBC’s inclusion of a very specific definition of moderation and its cautions “when consumed in moderation (we repeat moderation)” as “just a passing plug for ‘drinking in moderation.’”

While NBC in the US touted benefits of moderation, elsewhere, ABC Premium News in Australia asked “Does one drink a day damage your health?” ABC’s chosen expert, Professor Tanya Chikritzhs from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, came down on the negative side of that question.  She’s not only a firm skeptic about the research linking moderate drinking to health benefits, but she warned that “from the first sip, even at very low levels of less than half a drink a day, you can experience an increased risk for a range of cancers,” she warned.  “Seven or eight of them” in fact, she added, prompting the increasingly familiar comment: “There’s no level of alcohol consumption that’s completely safe.”

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2017
  • Volume: 34
  • Issue #: 28
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