IS ANY LEVEL OF DRINKING SAFE?
Much to the dismay of many casual drinkers, a study was published in the medical journal the Lancet on August 23, 2018, declaring that there was no safe level of alcohol consumption. According to the authors, the possible risks of drinking – such as cancer and other serious illnesses – were too high even among moderate drinkers. They acknowledge the research suggesting that responsible drinking can have positive effects on things like heart disease but maintain that the risks outweigh the benefits. On August 28, the New York Times published a rebuttal piece, stating that the study in the Lancet was severely limited.
According to the Times, that study in the Lancet wasn’t actually a new trial. Rather, it was a meta-analysis, or a compilation of data, from many observational studies. It was probably the largest such analysis ever done, estimating the risks of drinking for 23 different alcohol-related health problems. They used 700 sources in an attempt to accurately estimate the levels of alcohol consumption worldwide, even taking into account things that might skew the numbers, like tourism. They then used this data to make mathematical models to predict worldwide harm from alcohol. Overall, they determined that harm increases with each additional drink a person days per day, and that (obviously) the lowest harm was at zero drinks. This is how we ended up with headlines from nearly every news source on the planet lamenting that no alcohol is safe to drink.
It all sounds very thorough, right? So what qualms could the New York Times possibly have? One of the problems is that when you examine observational data, rather than conducting your own, controlled trial, you have no way of knowing what other factors might actually have caused the harm. For example, did some of the people who had a few drinks a day also smoke, which might account for some of their health problems? Maybe a few people who got cancer developed it independently of any alcohol consumption, like as a result of environmental factors. Maybe whatever illness occurred was purely genetic. The study also could only control for age, sex, and location, and failed to take into account the income of the people observed. Lower income people suffer worse effects from alcohol than people with more money do, even if they cumulatively drink the same amount. This is because poorer people are more likely to binge drink a few times a week than have a couple glasses of wine at night, and binge drinking is associated with higher risk of unintentional injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and cancer.
Still, the Times says, the risks are real, if much smaller than the headlines would have you believe. Heavy drinking is a serious concern, but more actual trials need to be conducted on the effects of light and moderate drinking.
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