Ten days ago, along with the rest of Britain, I awoke to my radio telling me that ‘more than five glasses of wine a week could knock years off your life’ and ‘drinking is as harmful as smoking’ – shock horror stories widely repeated in many of the day’s newspapers.
These had been generated by a study from the University of Cambridge, published in The Lancet, one of Britain’s most prestigious medical journals. It was a substantial piece of research, surveying the health of 600,000 people.
Within hours, I was assailed by a fusillade of tweets and emails from readers of my book, The Good News About Booze. ‘Not such good news now, eh Tony?’ they chided me.
Ten days ago, a study claimed that more than five glasses of wine a week could knock years off your life
Obviously, I had to see what the fuss was about – and I can now confidently report that the scare stories have got it completely wrong.
From the moment I read the first lines of the Lancet study’s press release, I smelt a very large rat. They were a flat contradiction of nearly half-a-century of medical research, which overwhelmingly demonstrates that, within limits, drinking is good for your health, and your heart particularly.
Many hours of work later, I managed to piece together the Lancet study’s raw medical data – very unusually, it had not been included in the main paper, but was buried in the middle of a voluminous appendix and in the form of a graph, which could easily have fooled anyone unfamiliar with the subject.
What hit me between the eyes was that, contrary to the primary claim in the press release, the study’s findings were wholly in line with nearly half-a-century of alcohol research.
The person who started it all off was Professor Sir Richard Doll, acknowledged ever since as the ‘father’ of epidemiology (the study of the health of human populations).
His renown stems largely from his pioneering discoveries of the health risks of tobacco.
Tony Edwards, a top scientist writer, read the report but says that he can now confidently confirm that it was wrong
However, in stark contrast, what the medical authorities have always kept very quiet about is Professor Doll’s almost simultaneous discovery of what he called the ‘inverse health risks’ (i.e. health benefits) of alcohol.
For example, in a study he began in the early Eighties on 600,000 Americans, he found that drinkers were much healthier than non-drinkers, with a roughly 25 per cent reduction in mortality rates – heart disease deaths in particular.
By the time Professor Doll died, in 2005, hundreds of scientists worldwide had replicated his pioneering work, finding that the most beneficial intake of alcohol is what they called ‘moderate’ – put simply, not enough to make you drunk.
Surveying the research data he had spawned, Professor Doll concluded there was enough evidence to show that the alcohol/good health connection is ‘causal’ – i.e. alcohol has genuine benefits, just like medicine.
Yet, in a BBC studio on the morning of the Lancet paper press storm, Robin Piper, the head of Alcohol Research UK, airily dismissed work such as Professor Doll’s.
Although Robin Piper’s organisation has a very official-sounding name, it is, in fact, a consortium of alcohol charities, some with roots in the Temperance movement of the last century. Referring to 40-year-old studies, he assured viewers that: ‘We’ve moved on.’
But have we? A mere three years ago, the journal Circulation published a study of three-and-a-half million middle-aged women, directly comparing the health risks of smoking and drinking.
While smokers were found to more than double their mortality risk, moderate drinkers had a 24 per cent decrease. The international research team recommended health advice to women ‘should focus on encouraging. .. moderate drinking’.
Again, only last year in Britain, scientists at the University of Cambridge published a study on two million of us, tallying our drinking habits with our health records. Broadly speaking, their data showed that everyone else was worse off health-wise than ‘moderate’ drinkers, with both teetotallers and heavy drinkers having around a 30 per cent extra risk of heart disease, strokes and premature death.
Now, 30 per cent may not sound much, but if the pharmaceutical industry could come up with a drug offering those same health benefits, you can be sure the NHS would be signing very large annual cheques for the stuff. However, the real take-home message from the two recent mega-studies is this: the scary headlines ten days ago that alcohol is so across-the-board harmful are wrong. Moderate drinking is good for you.
In fact, the top science writer has claimed the opposite. He said that a few drinks a week are actually good for you
But what does ‘moderate’ actually mean?
Well, the researchers behind the two million Britons study defined it as the amounts specified by the UK’s 1995 Alcohol Guidelines.
These had recommended an upper limit of 32 grams (roughly a third of a bottle of wine) a day for men, and 24 grams for women. Amazingly, therefore, the real-world findings from the two million Britons study showed that the 1995 figures weren’t an upper safe limit, but actually, an optimal intake for people’s health!
And yet, the study that caused the recent media stir had a diametrically opposite take-home message. Big puzzle. How can two large-scale research studies – from the same university, looking at the same issue – arrive at such opposite conclusions?
It wasn’t as if their raw data were significantly different. For the record, these are my (inevitably rough) calculations from the key graph buried in the huge, 48-page appendix. The data showed that, compared to non-drinkers, people drinking between 18 and 28 grams of alcohol a day had a 40 per cent reduction in ‘all cardiovascular events’ (in other words, symptoms of – or deaths from – anything connected with heart disease).
And yet, the opening statement of the study’s press release was this: ‘(Our) findings challenge the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health’.
I’m not the only one concerned about the direction in which this is all heading.
Commenting on the Lancet study, Dr Andrew Waterhouse, a research scientist at the University of California, says: ‘This is one of a growing number of studies that seem to be doing their level best to obscure their own data showing that drinking alcohol might have health benefits.’
Sharper in his criticism is Dr Harvey Finkel, emeritus professor of clinical medicine at Boston University Medical Center in the U.S. He says: ‘Considering the disconnects between the data and the conclusions, about which the media are not equipped to understand, this paper should not have been published.’
I did try to contact the lead author of the paper, Dr Angela Wood, who has a PhD in biostatistics and lectures to students on the subject.
She said she was ‘happy’ to answer my questions. I emailed them to her almost a week ago, but have heard nothing back.
The mystery is this: why has a prestigious university’s research gone so startlingly awry?
All I can tell you is that the primary message of the study’s press release that alcohol’s heart health benefits are a myth is precisely the message anti-alcohol groups such as Alcohol Research UK want to deliver to Government.
Of course, no one denies that alcohol is a toxin – for example, it’s a powerful bacteria-zapper in hospitals. However, partly because we naturally produce alcohol in our gut during food digestion, Mother Nature has given most of the human race a bunch of enzymes to detoxify it.
These enzymes generally do a very good job, but they’re not miracle-workers: excessive alcohol intake can overwhelm them, forcing the body to consume precious antioxidants to protect itself. That’s why binge-drinking or being an alcoholic is so dangerous.
There’s no debate that overdoing the drink is bad news for health. Where the battle lines are drawn is between the strident anti-alcohol brigade and the often self-effacing academics who follow Professor Doll’s example of dispassionate scientific enquiry.
These researchers’ repeated findings that drinking within sensible limits is good for your health must stick in the craw of Britain’s powerful quasi-Prohibitionists.