January marks the 98th anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment, more commonly known as prohibition. While Prohibition is remembered as one of America’s greatest failed experiments, today we’re seeing something of a revival of prohibitionist thinking among those in the public health community who are attacking even moderate alcohol consumption.
There is long-standing consensus about the negative health and social impacts of excessive alcohol consumption. But for decades there has also been widespread agreement about the benefits from a regular glass or two of your favorite beer, wine or spirit.
Studies show the moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to a healthier heart, a reduced likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, and even protection from the common cold. Most notably, moderate drinking has been shown to decrease all-cause mortality. Both public health officials and the alcohol beverage industry condemned excess and touted moderation. Alcohol companies have spent billions advising the public to “Drink Responsibly,” while the USDA proclaimed moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial.
In 2016 this system started to break down as a handful of researchers began pushing dubious science suggesting even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of various cancers.
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Before you swear off the occasional glass of wine at dinner, consider that there might be more driving the sudden anti-alcohol narrative beyond mere disinterested science.
Anti-alcohol groups have been partially fueled by an analysis performed in New Zealand by anti-alcohol researcher Jeannie Connor, who has claimed “alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others.” Connor alleged causation admittedly without “confirmation of specific biological mechanisms by which alcohol increases the incidence of each type of cancer.”
Anxiety about alcohol was furthered in 2016 by a host of stories about women and drinking. A Washington Post headline last month blared, “Heavy drinking among women has been normalized, and it’s killing them in record numbers.” The term “record number of deaths” is a record exaggeration. It is true there is an increase in the number of white women ages 35 to 54 dying from alcohol-related causes, but only by about 0.01 percent over the course of 15 years.
If you want to push for big government solutions, you need people to think the problem is bigger than it actually is. Which is why some researchers and public health officials are going outside the bounds of good science or fair reporting to undermine the moderate drinker vs. excessive drinker paradigm.
Take the latest Surgeon General’s report “Facing Addiction in America.” Rather than focusing on solutions to alcohol addiction, which affects 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, the report’s recommendations took aim at anyone who drinks by calling for a wide variety of new regulations on the sale of alcohol.
The health benefits of alcohol have long flummoxed public health officials in more activist circles who believe alcohol should be regulated as the new tobacco. Bans on alcohol advertising and Sunday sales, sky high taxation, lowering the legal blood-alcohol content limit for driving, and restricting alcohol access are primary goals of many in this group.
To the dismay of activists, the public understands that alcohol and tobacco are apples and oranges. They can’t be linked or compared. Even the most moderate smokers are damaging their health. Unlike alcohol, there is no way to incorporate smoking as part of a healthy lifestyle.
So before moderate drinkers allow activists and overzealous public health officials to chuck their health halo into the garbage like a dented Frisbee, keep in mind that overwhelming scientific evidence still shows moderate alcohol consumption has positive health effects.
We can all drink to that.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute. She wrote this for The Modesto Bee.