Sorry to be a Buzzkill but No, Alcohol has Never Been “Healthy”

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Well, it’s January, and that means complete and utter boredom. Just long days of working out, reading books, learning new skills, not eating all the things I want to eat, and not drinking ANYTHING. I mean, anything alcoholic, because it is officially DRY JANUARY. Yes, I do dry January, and yes, I complain about it approximately every two hours because that is my RIGHT as an AMERICAN.

To make matters worse, my social media feeds are now filled with ads for weight loss programs (no thank you, I will do that by eating less and moving more), promotions for “nonalcoholic cocktails” (no thank you, I do not want to pay $99 on sale to NOT get drunk), and people who are absolutely horrified to learn that alcohol is BAD for you. Sigh.

This is just an example of something I see all the time, but it hits all the right notes so I’m going to use this poor person as an example:

“I’m sorry, but no.  This is why ppl distrust medical experts.  They said for years that a daily glass of red wine was *good* for you–it was prescribed for my parents.  Now even a mouthful can give you six different cancers & cause liver failure?”

She links to a New York Times article titled “Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health: Recent research makes it clear that any amount of drinking can be detrimental. Here’s why you may want to cut down on your consumption beyond Dry January.”

First let’s address the Tweet: this may be why people “distrust medical experts” but the fault for that is not on the medical experts. The fault is on the mainstream media for uncritically publishing press releases and for promoting every random study that shows any interesting result whether it’s relevant to the general population or not. People should distrust the media, but they don’t, because the media has shiny white teeth and catchy breaking news music, while “medical experts” tell us that if we want to live longer we have to give up some of the things we enjoy.

Also, let’s not forget to place a little blame on our education system for not teaching people how science works.

First, the media: yeah, you’ve probably seen a lot of articles over the past few…decades, suggesting that “moderate” consumption of alcohol (usually red wine) is “healthy” (usually for your heart). But “medical experts” have had a consensus about this topic for much longer, understanding that any health benefit from things like the resveratrol in red wine is unproven and drastically outweighed by ethanol’s health risks, and that’s not JUST damage to the liver from heavy drinking. As researchers at the World Health Organization stated in a report from 2018, “The relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer risk has been known since the beginning of the 20th century. Epidemiological and biological research on the association has established that alcohol consumption causes cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectum, and female breast.”

For more than 100 years, doctors have known that alcohol is, like most fun things, a carcinogen. The only thing left to do is figure out exactly how bad it is.

But doctors are really no match for lobbyists, which is why as more studies came out showing the dangers of alcohol, the alcohol industry started fighting back, funding studies that would find some benefit, any benefit, or at least a lack of direct harm from moderate drinking. As Mother Jones reports:

“In a 1993 book called Forward Together: Industry and Academia, Thomas Turner, the former dean of the Johns Hopkins University medical school, explained how, starting in 1969, he had worked with the heads of the world’s biggest beer companies to create the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation (now called the Foundation for Alcohol Research). The foundation took academics to exotic destinations for conferences and gave grants to scientists.

“Between 1972 and 1993, Turner bragged, the beer foundation and its precursor funded more than 500 studies on alcohol and distributed grants to dozens of researchers and universities. One was Dr. Arthur Klatsky of Kaiser Permanente. In the early 1970s, Klatsky had access to extensive data through Kaiser’s health system that included information about patients’ alcohol intake. In 1974, he published one of the first papers suggesting that light drinkers had lower rates of heart disease than abstainers. Soon after, the beer foundation started funding Klatsky’s data collection at Kaiser, a relationship that continued for decades. Between 1975 and 1991, according to Turner’s book, the foundation contributed $1.7 million to Klatsky’s research on alcohol and health. The industry widely promoted his work suggesting health benefits from drinking, and Klatsky is still quoted regularly in the media, often without any disclosure of his relationship with the industry.”

The studies showing that light drinkers are healthier than abstainers usually tend to do things like not control for existing health problems that may have encouraged people to start abstaining from alcohol, meaning that the data for “nondrinkers” includes people who were heavy drinkers who did permanent damage to their bodies already, or who took up habits like smoking to help them quit the booze.

If you don’t think that’s a common occurrence, allow me to use myself as an example: I’m only on week 3 of dry January and I’ve eaten so many cannabis edibles that they DON’T WORK ANYMORE. So now I have to give those up to and just bareback reality for the next 13 days. Fuck my life.

Anyway, read that Mother Jones piece if you want more details on the shady “science” the booze industry has been pushing. And it didn’t end in 1990 – in 2018, the New York Times gathered documents from an FOIA request that revealed that the alcohol industry was funding and covertly influencing a 10-year study on moderate alcohol usage overseen by the National Institutes of Health. The expose led to the NIH canceling the entire study.

It’s that kind of fuckery that is why, as our original Tweeter said, a daily glass of red wine was prescribed for their parents. Some popular replies in that thread challenged that, saying things like “They never “prescribed it” for people of your parents’ generation–that’s a myth.” That person is wrong, and I know that because my good friend (about the age of my parents), a lifelong teetotaler, was prescribed a bedtime glass of wine by his doctor following a cardiac emergency. He HATED it, and we would try various wines to see if he could find one he hated less than the others. That happened! I did not make that up! And at the time I found it odd but what the heck, he’s a doctor, so he must know, right?

But doctors are people, too, and they can also be swayed by blatant propaganda. They can also take chances based on small studies, or they can recommend things based on their own internal biases.

OR, and this is where the blame for our educational system comes into the picture, they can CHANGE THEIR MINDS when new research comes to light. While the consensus amongst medical experts has NEVER truly supported the idea that alcohol can be “healthy,” even if they had, the entire point of science is to challenge what we think we know. The entire point of reading about recent breakthroughs is to update your own assumptions about how the universe works.

So, if you were under the impression that alcohol is “a part of this complete breakfast,” as the Saturday morning commercials used to say about PopTarts, consider this your friendly reminder to update your brain: alcohol is poison. It is bad for you. Cool? Cool.

Does that mean I’m going to extend my dry January to a dry lifetime? Hell no. “But Rebecca,” I hear you cry, “you just said it’s poison! It causes liver damage, many different kinds of cancer, and you actually didn’t even mention the increased risk of high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks! Why on earth would you go back to ingesting this poison?”

Why? BECAUSE IT’S FUN. Having the occasional beer or glass of whiskey makes me relax, feel more sociable, less introverted, more…fun! And I have demonstrated over the past 25 years of alcohol consumption that I am fully capable of controlling my intake to the point that I can probably avoid the more horrific consequences of drinking, like cirrhosis, or murdering myself and others through drunk driving, or beating my partner, or just, like, sobbing all night in the bathroom of a dive bar. It only happened once, and it was before I knew that you shouldn’t just keep drinking martinis all night because people in the bar heard it was your birthday and that you liked martinis. I didn’t drink gin for 9 years after that.

That’s not the case for everyone. Alcohol is very addictive, and many people are predisposed to that addiction and so it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for them to just have a few drinks here and there. There are other people who are predisposed to the kinds of cancer that alcohol contributes to, like people with the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations and/or a family history of breast cancer. Or, for people who blush when they drink, meaning those with the ALDH2 and ADH1B gene mutations that a study last year indicated might increase their risk for alcohol-related cancers of the head and neck; esophagus, colon, rectum and liver. For these people, the increased risk from alcohol may be more than they want to take on.

That’s why it’s important for researchers to continue to stress the negatives of alcohol – you may find it to be a buzzkill, because the reward is worth the risk, but to make that decision you have to actually know the risk.

And there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation that your doctor can give you for how much alcohol is okay for you: it’s based on YOUR personal health risks, YOUR feelings on the benefits, and things like your reasons for drinking, and any shame you might feel, or how it’s impacting the rest of your life.

It’s the same with any poison that brings us pleasure: I know I say it all the time but refined sugar is straight up EVIL, but god damn I love ice cream. So I make judgment calls for myself: I’m already fucking miserable this month so I gave up added sugar, too, because why not, but later I will choose to have a bowl of ice cream while also choosing not to eat the entire tub, because one bowl offers me what I believe to be a good balance of risk versus reward.

I saw a reply to the New York Times article that made me really laugh, so I’d like to share it: “Life is like DnD: I’m here to tell a story with my friends, not min-max my class into oblivion.”

I agree with that, to a point: I also want the game to go on as long as I’m still having fun. And that’s a goal that I can reach only by making my own decisions based on the facts that I have at hand, and I reserve the right to change my behaviors when new information becomes available. But one behavior I will never, ever change, is complaining about every healthy habit I feel compelled to do.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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