"Long before it's in the papers"
March 23, 2016


Study questions much-hyped benefits of moderate drinking

March 23, 2005
Courtesy of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs
and World Science staff

Stud­ies have pe­r­suaded many peo­ple that a glass of wine with din­ner will help them live long­er and health­ier—but those stud­ies are flawed, a new anal­y­sis claims.

The find­ings, pub­lished in the March 2016 is­sue of the Jour­nal of Stud­ies on Al­co­hol and Drugs, may sound sur­pris­ing: count­less news sto­ries have re­ported on re­search ty­ing mod­er­ate drink­ing to a range of health ben­e­fits—including a low­er heart dis­ease risk and a long­er life.

But the anal­y­sis took a new look at those stud­ies, 87 in all, and con­cluded that many came up short.

A key is­sue is how stud­ies have de­fined “ab­stain­ers,” ex­plained Tim Stock­well, the lead re­searcher on the anal­y­sis and di­rec­tor of the Un­ivers­ity of Vic­to­ri­a’s Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tions Re­search in Brit­ish Co­lum­bia, Can­a­da.

Most of­ten, he said, stud­ies have com­pared mod­er­ate drinkers (peo­ple who have up to two drinks per day) with “cur­rent” ab­stain­ers. The prob­lem is that this ab­stain­er group can in­clude peo­ple in poor health who’ve cut out al­co­hol.

“A fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is, who are these mod­er­ate drinkers be­ing com­pared again­st?” Stock­well said.

When his team cor­rected for those ab­stain­er “bi­as­es” and cer­tain oth­er stu­dy-design is­sues, mod­er­ate drinkers no long­er showed a longe­vity ad­van­tage, he said. Fur­ther, only 13 of the 87 stud­ies avoided bi­as­ing the ab­stain­er com­par­i­son group—and these showed no health ben­e­fits.

What’s more, Stock­well said, be­fore those cor­rec­tions were made, it was ac­tu­ally “oc­ca­sion­al” drinkers—peo­ple who had less than one drink per week—who lived the longest. And it’s un­likely that such an in­fre­quent drink­ing would be the rea­son for their longe­vity.

“Those peo­ple would be get­ting a bi­o­log­ic­ally in­sig­nif­i­cant dose of al­co­hol,” said Stock­well.

In ad­di­tion, he not­ed, stud­ies have linked mod­er­ate drink­ing to an im­plau­sibly wide range of health ben­e­fits. Com­pared with ab­stain­ers, for in­stance, mod­er­ate drinkers have shown low­er risks of deaf­ness and even liv­er cir­rho­sis.

“Ei­ther al­co­hol is a panacea,” Stock­well said, “or mod­er­ate drink­ing is really a mark­er of some­thing else.”

The study did not look at wheth­er cer­tain types of al­co­hol, such as red wine, are tied to long­er life. But if that were the case, Stock­well said, it would be un­likely that the al­co­hol con­tent it­self de­served the cred­it.

“There’s a gen­er­al idea out there that al­co­hol is good for us, be­cause that’s what you hear re­ported all the time,” Stock­well said. “But there are many rea­sons to be skep­ti­cal.”

* * *

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Studies have persuaded many people that a glass of wine with dinner will help them live longer and healthier—but those studies are flawed, a new analysis claims. The findings, published in the March 2016 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, may sound surprising: Countless news stories have reported on research tying moderate drinking to a range of health benefits--including a lower heart disease risk and a longer life. But the new analysis took a deeper look at those studies, 87 in all. And it found that many came up short, with designs suggesting benefits where there were likely none. A key issue is how studies have defined “abstainers,” explained Tim Stockwell, the lead researcher on the analysis and director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, Canada. Most often, he said, studies have compared moderate drinkers (people who have up to two drinks per day) with “current” abstainers. The problem is that this abstainer group can include people in poor health who’ve cut out alcohol. “A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against?” Stockwell said. When his team corrected for those abstainer “biases” and certain other study-design issues, moderate drinkers no longer showed a longevity advantage. Further, only 13 of the 87 studies avoided biasing the abstainer comparison group--and these showed no health benefits. What’s more, Stockwell said, before those corrections were made, it was actually “occasional” drinkers—people who had less than one drink per week—who lived the longest. And it’s unlikely that such an infrequent drinking would be the reason for their longevity. “Those people would be getting a biologically insignificant dose of alcohol,” said Stockwell, whose findings are published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. In addition, he noted, studies have linked moderate drinking to an implausibly wide range of health benefits. Compared with abstainers, for instance, moderate drinkers have shown lower risks of deafness and even liver cirrhosis. “Either alcohol is a panacea,” Stockwell said, “or moderate drinking is really a marker of something else.” The study did not look at whether certain types of alcohol, such as red wine, are tied to longer life. But if that were the case, Stockwell said, it would be unlikely that the alcohol content itself deserved the credit. “There’s a general idea out there that alcohol is good for us, because that’s what you hear reported all the time,” Stockwell said. “But there are many reasons to be skeptical.”