Alcohol study

At first glance, a recent study published in The Lancet appears to be bad news for those who enjoy alcoholic beverages.

Takeaway: There is no safe amount of alcohol. Big “ugh” for those of us who enjoy wine, especially since we’ve toasted several studies that reported benefits of wine, primarily red wine.

Fortunately, if you drill down in the report, the news is not nearly so dire. First, this was not a new trial. It was a meta-analysis, a combination of almost 700 previous studies. Disparate data from around the world was poured into mathematical models to predict health hazards of alcohol.

The study found harm increased with each additional drink per day, starting with no harm if you did not drink at all. That inspired the headlines.

There are various ways you can find fault with meta-analysis studies. It is similar to throwing apples, oranges, grapes and more into a blender and evaluating fruit, for instance. But even taking the study at face value, the results are not nearly so grim as the headlines screamed.

For each set of 100,000 people who have one alcohol drink a day, 918 can expect to experience one of 23 health-related problems in a year. But for those who drink nothing, 914 can experience a problem tracked by the study. Thus, among 100,000 people, only four who consume a drink a day will have more problems than those who drink no alcohol.

At two drinks a day, 977 had a problem—63 more (.063 percent) than those who drink nothing. Even at five drinks per day, the vast majority of people face only slightly increased risk.

Measured risks also influence the study. Motor vehicle accidents stands out. Of course you should not drink and drive; if you only consume at home you eliminate that risk. The study also noted moderate alcohol lowered risks for people with diabetes and heart disease, while risks for cancer and tuberculosis go up. For many, diabetes and heart disease are greater health concerns than cancer or tuberculosis.

The study solidly confirms heavy drinking and alcoholism are clear risks. We didn’t need a meta-analysis for that wisdom. But, taken in context, the scare headlines overstate the study findings. Decide for yourself if the joys and pleasures of moderate wine—and other alcohol beverages—are worth the slight risk.

Last round: If you give up drinking wine, you don’t live longer. It just seems that way.