The evidence keeps on growing: alcohol’s health benefits are no old wives’ tale

You may recall the Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, telling us in January that there is ‘no safe level of drinking’ and that the benefits of alcohol to the heart are an ‘old wives’ tale’.

The first of these claims ignores the fact that the benefits of moderate drinking in reducing heart disease, stroke and diabetes risk outweigh the relatively minor cancer risk, hence lower rates of mortality among moderate drinkers. The second claim is simply untrue. A mountain of evidence exists showing the benefits of moderate drinking and it just keeps on growing.

This month alone, a couple of studies have been published looking at this supposedly contested issue and came to the usual conclusion.

First up, data from the British Nurses’ Study published in the American Journal of Public Health led to the following findings:

Regular alcohol intake has both risks and benefits. In analyses using repeated assessments of alcohol over time and deaths from all causes, women with low to moderate intake and regular frequency (greater than three days/week) had the lowest risk of mortality compared with abstainers and women who consumed substantially more than one drink per day.


As an important component of a healthy lifestyle, we have found that light to moderate alcohol consumption was one of the five most important modifiable contributors to lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and total mortality. Describing alcohol as a component of a healthy diet rather than providing clinical advice only on drinking or not drinking may be the best method to translate our results in a clinical population.

This, of course, is the opposite of Sally Davies’s advice.

Next, a large study in Social Science and Medicine looked at relatively young people (under 40) in the US and goes to great lengths to account for the ‘sick quitters’ whom some say undermine decades of evidence. The theory is that people who went teetotal because they used to have an alcohol problem are less healthy as a result of their past drinking. Superficially plausible, as an explanation for the different health status of teetotallers and moderate drinkers it has been refuted time after time in studies which rarely get mentioned by the ‘sceptics’.

First, we construct two categories of non-drinkers, lifetime abstainers and former drinkers. Our lifetime abstainer category includes only individuals who have never had a drink of alcohol in their life. Our measure of former drinkers includes individuals who report abstaining from alcohol in the past year. By separating these drinking categories, we considerably reduce the possibility that our study suffers from abstainer bias. Second, we also examine the relationships between moderate alcohol use and health after controlling for past drinking behaviors. Thus, we minimise the likelihood that any estimated effects are due to changes in alcohol consumption resulting from an illness.

… Our final sample, after excluding participants with missing data, consists of 15,482 subjects, including 7,207 men and 8,275 women.

Bearing in mind that Davies claimed in January that whatever health benefits she grudgingly accepted only applied to old people, let’s look at the conclusion:

Our findings are generally consistent — especially for younger women — with an accumulating body of research demonstrating positive associations between moderate alcohol use and health, even after accounting for abstainer bias.

Looks like another two studies can be added to the massive body of evidence showing the same thing.

Smart people, those old wives.

  • I need to interrupt this industry-sponsored pipe dream with a commercial for something called evidence-based science. “The fact that the benefits of moderate drinking in reducing heart disease, stroke and diabetes risk outweigh the relatively minor cancer risk,” may be the most inaccurate and dangerous 22 words you can chunk out to your readers.

    Even the heart health benefit was discredited more than a decade ago. A moderate drinker reduces his or her life expectancy by 12 months compared to a non-drinker. If your heart STOPS BEATING 12 months early, it’s clear this toxin and known carcinogen is nowhere close to being heart healthy. The University College London and Pennsylvania University conducted no new experiments or studies for a piece appearing in the BMJ. Scientists instead analyzed 50 studies that looked at drinking habits and heart health, with data from more than a quarter-million people. They conclude: less alcohol is the only sure way to improve and protect heart health. “The best thing to do is to reduce consumption to reduce blood pressure and risk of heart disease,” the lead researcher said.

    Alcohol raids the body of vitamin B (Thiamin) which is essential for a healthy heart. B-deficiency enlarges the heart and creates distended neck veins. Alcohol metabolism’s byproduct, acetaldehyde, also physically weakens muscle, the heart being your body’s most important one. Acetaldehyde also increases cholesterol, especially triglycerides, by the way. The point on blood pressure sets up another legend, that moderate alcohol calms a person down and lowers blood pressure. Even modest alcohol consumption can cause blood pressure to increase, according to two studies conducted in Japan. Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan concluded that even very low alcohol consumption can be a health risk, raising the top number in a blood pressure reading 1.4 to 5.4 points on just a single drink. In second study, researchers from Kyushu University followed more than 1,100 people over age 40 for 10 years. One hundred men and 106 women developed hypertension, with the risk of developing hypertension higher for drinkers, even those who drank less than a drink daily. Even if you’re skeptical about the findings of junk science (Spectator article) vs. real science, it’s never been disputed that immediately after having a drink, blood pressure rises and blood platelets, which are essential for clotting, become stickier, increasing the risk of heart attack.

    There is not a health benefit to drinking any amount of a toxin and known carcinogen, at any age, for either gender. Spend 52 min. with The A-Files if you want to find out what this drug does TO you, instead of this fiction of what it does FOR you.

    Moderate cancer risk? It’s a carcinogen! Women… this is the ONLY dietary factor shown to increase risk of breast cancer. Each drink daily (10g of alcohol) increases risk by 11 percent. More than four a day brings the same risk as smoking a pack of cigs a day. It’s the #2 cause of oral cancers. It causes pre-diabetes, a precursor to type 2… it doesn’t reduce the risk as observational studies claim. Additionally, one in five strokes is alcohol-related. The risk of stroke is both long-term and short-term. In fact, stroke risk increases instantly and remains elevated for two hours after consuming alcohol. There are also consequences for liver, brain, pancreas. More than 60 diseases are caused by even “moderate” use of alcohol and it is the third-leading cause of preventable death and illness in the U.S. and U.K..

    • Mark Bailey

      I love the way you dismiss his evidence as the work of an industry-sponsored shill. Good ad hominem there, although I note you refrain from criticising the two studies he quotes.

      But talking off shills, doesn’t your absolute confirmation bias in support of the contention that alcohol is an unadulterated evil make you a more likely shill for the thoroughly discredited temperance movement?

      • Follow the money, Mark. There’s no money in abstinence unless you take into account the savings in healthcare costs, criminal justice expense and lost productivity. While I certainly could find use for the $750 USD every citizen expends as a result of alcohol-related harm, I don’t get that check back from the government and neither do you. There IS money in a pro-alcohol article appearing a publication supported by ad dollars from the alcohol industry that cites two OBSERVATIONAL studies trolled out by the drinks biz.

        • Mark Bailey

          Look, even if his name was Johnnie Walker and he was offering a free drink with every click – which it isn’t and he ain’t – it would have no bearing on the quality of his argument or the evidence he cited.

          You, on the other hand, and from unhappy and personal experience with which I can sympathise, feel that no positive statement should be allowed about alcohol. Ever. And that if any publication has taken money from any purveyor of alcoholic drinks they are de facto advocates for alcohol in their editorial pages. Now that really is evidence free.

          We do not, yet, decide policy or define science based on one persons unhappy experience versus the quiet enjoyment that millions have enjoyed from their moderate consumption.

          • You are correct… which is why I use evidence-based studies in my rebuttal to the author’s observational studies, the same tired, unreliable studies the drinks industry spreads like manure.

            The EVIDENCE of the harmful effects of alcohol outweighs OBSERVATIONAL data on the benefits of drinking, (the journal Addiction, April 2013). In a critical analysis of the health-boosting, disease-preventing characteristics of alcohol, Norwegian psychiatrist and addiction researcher, Hans Olav Fekjær, notes in the journal, “Altogether, the evidence for alcohol’s ability to prevent diseases is considerably weaker than that for alcohol causing several kinds of harm.” Claims that alcohol has health benefits in the article above are observational, not evidence-based, considering all the characteristics of the drinkers. This means that the claims do not take into account other lifestyle choices such as diet, nor do they consider the “dosage” of alcohol or pre-existing conditions, not the least of which is the disease of alcoholism.

            Various observational studies have concluded that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may help prevent:
            Alzheimer’s disease/dementia
            Colorectal cancer
            Common cold
            Coronary heart disease
            Diabetes (type 2)
            Hearing loss
            Low birth weight, prematurity
            Lower urinary tract symptoms (in men)
            Psychiatric disorders
            Renal cell cancer
            Rheumatoid arthritis
            Stroke (ischaemic)
            And total mortality
            These studies all vary widely on the lifestyle factors taken into account. Altogether, there is ample evidence that groups with different drinking habits differ in several other
            ways than their drinking, making it difficult to separate the OBSERVATIONAL effects of drinking habits from other factors” contributing to illness. For example, people who don’t drink at all, as a group, have a less healthy diet and exercise less than moderate drinkers to begin with. The existing evidence does not meet the criteria for inferring causality. For almost all the diseases, we do not know of any plausible biological mechanism explaining a preventive role for alcohol. Alcohol’s possible ability to prevent diseases should not be considered as an established fact.

            The OBSERVATIONAL studies’ absence of definite knowledge leaves plenty of room for wishful thinking, which is observed frequently on this topic. I would encourage you or anyone else to drink moderately or often if you choose based on ALL the information, which you aren’t getting from Spectator spoon-feeding you alcohol-industry drivel. I’d also suggest if you want to debate, you stick to facts rather than assailing a personal experience.

    • Chris Oakley

      A typical comment from a fanatic incapable it seems of forming reasoned arguments.You attack the man and then indulge in a bizarre rant that completely ignores the new academic material he presents whilst claiming that that its findings were discredited a decade ago.

      Sadly, the low tactic of ad hominem attack coupled with the spewing of facts that fail to address the original premise are typical in those afflicted by healthism. I suggest that you seek urgent help before you choke on your own bile and this terrible disease claims yet another victim.

      Healthism really is a terrible way to go. It twists the victim into a sad caricature of a human being, incapable of rational thought but with delusional beliefs and an obsession with conspiracy theories. I have heard of cases in which the brain explodes whilst attempting to cope with logical arguments that are at odds with healthist dogma.

      Get help.Before it is too late.

    • Sian

      My uncle has three times been told he’s pre diabetic. He’s slim, active and only ever drank once in his life – at his daughter’s wedding 37 years ago.
      He has,however, been on statins for years.

  • Chris Oakley

    The guidelines produced effectively by temperance lobbyists are a disgraceful insult to science and all of those responsible should be held to account. The publication of them in any form that retains the absurd harmonised limits for men and women , the statistically true but clinically irrelevant “no safe limit dogma” and the ridiculous notion, at odds with almost all the scientific literature, that health benefits are only observed in women over 55 can only further damage the tattered credibility of the government and the Department of Health.

    The whole sorry episode is yet another example of government processes being hijacked by vested ideological interests devoid of objectivity and conscience. People ruthlessly prepared to manipulate and abuse the available evidence to further their cause. People who I believe are unfit to have any say in the government of the British people. The guidelines an the process that produced them are shameful but no doubt nobody whatsoever will be held accountable and there will be no investigation. The Department of Health officials who sanctioned this abuse of the British public will retire with their gold plated pensions, their gongs from a grateful establishment and their reputations intact. Nauseating seems too weak a word to describe the corruption at the Department of Health.

  • Jeff

    Gated Communities

    Gated communities are taking on an important role in modern politics. Donald Trump grew up in a gated community, and made his fortune building gated communities that illegally exclude African-Americans. Trump’s approach is not based on ideology, but on consumer demand, and in particular, the demand of the working class to live in a place where there are no minority groups, criminals, wierdos or politically correct (Catholic educated) people.

    A gated community has a number of characteristics. There is ideally a six metre high concrete wall to keep out intruders. When the wall surrounds a very large number of houses, the average cost of the wall becomes insignificant. Getting past the security guards is like going through customs. Hence there is no crime in a gated community, and children can roam unsupervised in complete safety. Parents can be sure their daughters will not encounter males that would be unsuitable sons-in-law.

    Allotments are typically quarter-acre or five acres (one-tenth or two hectares). Houses are fireproof and of a similar appearance. Services are provided by underground ducts, including pneumatic mail delivery. Television and internet are unobtrusively censored.

    There is a shopping centre with a supermarket and other key shops. Prices are controlled to prevent gouging. There is a club for men and older boys from which women are excluded. On the top of the shopping centre is a hospital and old people’s home overlooking a race track and playing fields.

    There is a non-denomination church, which has leather sofas instead of pews, and wallpaper with pictures of saints like in an eastern orthodox church. The priest is a family man employed by the management committee. There is a co-educational school, so that if children conceive a passionate desire for a classmate, it will be someone of the opposite gender. The school has international baccalaureate and no homework.

    Once people move into a gated community, it occurs to them that, instead of their having to move into a gated community, it would be better if the “undesirables” were forced to live in ghettos, or were kicked out of the country altogether. No doubt this is what Donald Trump has in mind. The Conservative Party should take on board this trend in modern living and become the party for people who live or would like to live in gated communities. ec

  • RollerBallMurder

    My problem with all of these studies is they focus on “moderate” drinking, and when I see that “moderate” is having a drink 3-4 times a week, it puts my own drinking in sharply into perspective.

    So if you’re a person who perhaps has one drink a fortnight, is there any impact worth caring about? It’s not abstinence, but it’s not “moderate” drinking either. If there is virtually no impact, why must the medical establishment use the terms it recently has claiming that any amount is dangerous basing it off what I’d consider “regular drinking”?