Claims about alcohol’s health benefits warrant skepticism
The health benefits of moderate drinking are likely overstated, say Canadian researchers who reviewed 87 long-term studies on alcohol and death rates.
Studies have reported health benefits from moderate drinking such as healthier hearts and longer life.
Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia has taken another look at published studies on alcohol and mortality on nearly four million people, including more than 367,000 deaths.
Moderate drinking was defined as no more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day for men or one standard drink a day for women, at least once a week, for any kind of alcohol.
The review in Tuesday’s Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs expands on his work on classifying abstainers. A problem arises when grouping those who currently abstain with former drinkers who quit or substantially cut back as their health worsened. The health and life expectancy of moderate drinkers ends up looking better in comparison.
“We should drink alcohol for pleasure,” Stockwell said in an interview. “But if you think it’s for your health, you’re deluding yourself.”
The review concluded a “skeptical position is warranted” when it comes to alcohol’s net health benefits. Researchers often did a poor job of asking about alcohol use and accounting for other protective factors among drinkers, such as wealth and eating more fruits and vegetables, Stockwell said.
When the quality of studies was considered, the reviewers found no significant difference in death for any drinking group except for a raised risk for higher volume drinkers having 65 grams or more of alcohol a day, or more than four standard drinks a day for men or more than seven a day for women.
Jurgen Rehm of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto knows how difficult it is to study abstinence. He’s observed how survey respondents who later report never in their lives having drunk alcohol have previously said they were prior or current drinkers.
There’s substantial public interest in whether light drinking is protective or harmful, as well as substantial commercial implications, Rehm said in a journal commentary published with the review.
“Although the population impact will depend on many factors, ‘less is better’ seems to be a general rule,” Rehm said.
The research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.