Weighing Alcohols Benefits and Risks

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 consumption.

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 alcohol use.

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/


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