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Alcohol’s Health Benefits May Have Been ‘Grossly Oversold’ by Industry-Funded Research

Hm, maybe a nice bottle of water instead? Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Nobody’s ignorant of the fact that alcohol is essentially poison, but what’s always helped people swallow this depressing truth is long-accepted research arguing that booze also offers a few health benefits when consumed in moderation (the most famous claim probably being Boston University professor Curtis Ellison’s that red wine reduces the risk of heart disease). Well, get ready to have a wet blanket thrown on that: The tide’s slowly turning because scientists are beginning to notice problems with those studies, like, for starters, that some of the major ones were funded by alcohol companies, and that the science itself may not be solid. Wired climbed down into this rabbit hole today in a piece that walks readers through what it calls the “muddled link” between spirits and cancer. Here are a couple of the points worth noting:

1. First, Ellison’s research is propped up by “unrestricted educational donations” from the liquor industry, money that’s supported not only him but also a group he leads that touts alcohol’s purported health benefits.

2. There are other “cozy relationships,” too: The industry’s biggest lobby group is actually pretty tight with several federal regulators and prominent researchers. For instance, it now employs Samir Zakhari, former director of the NIH’s alcohol research division, as an adviser.

3. As for the actual science, some acclaimed studies didn’t take a group called the “sick quitters” in account — subjects classified as nondrinkers who were actually either too ill in the first place to imbibe, or in some cases former alcoholics.

4. Deriving health benefits from wine consumption alone is also problematic: People tend to drink it more slowly and at mealtimes and be wealthier, all things that predispose them to better health.

5. Certain scientists (like Ellison) acknowledge a link between heavy drinking and cancer, but there’s no consensus on the definition of “heavy.” Trying to define it in studies where participants have “vastly different body sizes, metabolisms, and socioeconomic backgrounds” is sort of a joke.

Alcohol scholars behind this corrective argue the case for alcohol’s health benefits “has really fallen apart in the last couple years,” which is a bummer since “[l]ots of us drink and we’d really like to believe drinking is good for us.” Research suggests it’s not any different from having cigarettes or soda — and the message on those has been clear for some time: No level of use is truly risk-free. That’s no fun, but as one researcher sums things up, “I certainly think that people deserve to be more aware of this than they are now.”

Industry-Funded Studies Oversold Alcohol’s Health Benefits