Monday, September 19, 2011

Australian policy group statment on alcohol misses the mark

Anti-alcohol activists fired another salvo last week in Australia with the release of a paper by the Alcohol Policy Coalition challenging the view that regular consumption of red wine is good for the heart. They even went so far as to proclaim wine’s health benefits a busted myth. The paper authoritatively bases its interpretation on a review of “all the scientific evidence” and asserts that red wine has “no special, protective qualities when it relates to cardiovascular disease.” I too have reviewed a lot of data on this subject for my book “Age Gets Better with Wine” and came to the exact opposite conclusion. So again I am left to wonder how such this well-meaning group of knowledgeable people can still get it so wrong?


It may be that the Australians are just a bit behind the times on this one, so let’s back it up a few years. Nearly all of what is now gospel about lifestyle factors and heart health comes from the Framingham study, now in its fourth generation. Back in the 1970’s, after the study had already been in progress for some 25 years, a review of the role of alcohol and heart disease was done. By now you know the result – moderate drinkers had lower rates of heart disease – but the data was suppressed for years because it didn’t mesh with what policy makers believed. Flash forward some 40 years and we are right in the same place with the Australian policy. In the meantime however, several hundred studies have reaffirmed the pattern of moderate drinking, particularly red wine, as having a protective effect. (References in my book.)

The same tired and discredited arguments prop up the Alcohol Policy Coalition’s paper. To begin with, they limit the benefits discussion to heart health, while the evidence comprehensively shows that red wine drinkers live longer than nondrinkers, have lower rates of Alzheimer’s and better mental function with age, lower rates of diabetes, osteoporosis, on and on. But the counter-argument presented by the Coalition lists all of the health hazards of heavy drinking.

One-sided statistics further cloud the picture; for example, there is the assertion that several hundred thousand deaths annually are attributable to alcohol consumption. Though arguable, even if true it does not take into account the number of deaths delayed due to the health benefits of moderate drinking. Dr. Curt Ellison, a world-renowned expert on the epidemiology of drinking and health, has convincingly demonstrated that the number of lives saved is a multiple of the number of alcohol-related deaths. Back in 1998 he wrote “ Only stopping smoking would have a larger beneficial effect on heart disease than for a non-drinker to begin having a drink or two each day.”

Mention is also made in the Coalition paper that one in five breast cancers is alcohol-related. This is such a wildly speculative figure that it undermines the credibility of the entire paper. While it is true that heavy drinking does increase the odds of developing some types of breast cancer, evidence shows that the risk is offset by a healthy diet containing folate. The risk of moderate drinking remains a matter of extrapolation.

The authors conclude with a recommendation to limit drinking to no more than 2 drinks per day. That is indeed sensible advice, but even more sensible would be to encourage a glass or 2 (no more) of red wine with dinner.