The media is often bagged for being too negative, but the truth is that sometimes we are too positive. We are more likely to report “positive” findings from research (that X causes B) than so-called negative findings (that X does not cause B).

We also often don’t weigh the validity of studies — those of dubious merit are just as likely to win prominent coverage as those that really advance knowledge and understanding.

So you may not have heard about a significant piece of research that undermines much of the “good news about alcohol and health” that the media loves to report.

A meta-analysis by researchers from the United States, Canada and Australia investigated 54 previous studies examining whether moderate drinkers are less likely to die of heart disease than teetotallers.

Most of these studies were found to be seriously flawed as they had included people who had cut back or quit drinking, which often happens with ageing or ill health, in the group of abstainers. This suggested that teetotaling itself was not the cause of higher death rates among abstainers, but a symptom of their declining health due to other causes.

This conclusion was reinforced by the researchers’ finding that the small number of studies that did not make this methodological mistake failed to find a protective effect for alcohol.

The latest issue of Addiction Research and Theory, the journal that reported these findings last year, contains an extensive follow-up debate from other researchers, with the main point being that if alcohol offers any protection against heart disease, these benefits have been dramatically overstated.

So, it will be interesting to see if this scientific shift has any impact on the pronouncements of DrinkWise, an industry body whose principal goal is to “minimise the harm and maximise any benefits from alcohol consumption”, and whose website states that there is “now overwhelming evidence of beneficial, protective physiological effects of moderate consumption of alcohol over time”.

It is particularly interesting given that the Federal Government has generously given $5 million to DrinkWise to educate the public about responsible drinking, despite concerns about the organisation’s independence and effectiveness among leading public health experts who note: “The alcohol industry cannot afford to reduce the risky alcohol consumption that generates most of its profits.”

At the same time, the Government has repeatedly knocked back funding applications from the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, which it set up in 2001 with funds related to the GST introduction, and whose work in “changing the way we drink” is well respected in the research and policy communities. One of the many innovative initiatives funded by the foundation is a courageous project tackling the deeply ingrained grog culture in the WA mining town of Kalgoorlie.

The bottom line? Be wary of those urging a drink to your health, especially if they have a vested interest in distracting attention from its harmful effects.

Tomorrow: Will new national guidelines resolve the current confusion in alcohol policy?