As yet another anti-alcohol campaign is launched by a nanny state body, efforts by the public health lobby to demonise alcohol have been dealt a blow by a slew of recent studies confirming that moderate consumption of alcohol is an important protector against a variety of diseases.

Today, the taxpayer-funded anti-alcohol lobby group FARE has launched another of its polls showing that respondents think other people have a problem with alcohol and governments should do something — while actual levels of alcohol consumption have fallen yet again. The Sydney Morning Herald, the newspaper behind Sydney’s lockout laws fiasco, dutifully wrote it up in approving terms.

But hard evidence is repeatedly emerging that claims about the harms linked to alcohol consumption have been massively overstated and the benefits of alcohol, particularly for cardiovascular disease, ignored. A recent study has massively downgraded previous global estimates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) deaths attributable to alcohol, concluding:

“An estimated 780,381 CVD deaths (441,893 and 338,490 CVD deaths among men and women respectively) were attributable to alcohol consumption globally in 2012, accounting for 1.4 % of all deaths and 26.6% of all alcohol-attributable deaths. This is in contrast to the previously estimated 1,128,273 CVD deaths attributable to alcohol consumption globally, and represents a decrease of 30.8 % in alcohol-attributable CVD mortality …”

The adjustment is particularly significant among women, with a near-halving of the estimated numbers of female deaths for alcohol-attributed CVD. And importantly, the study emphasises not just how much people drink, but how they drink, drawing on evidence of high alcohol-related mortality from Russia. There are well-demonstrated links between regular moderate drinking and reduced risk of CVD compared both to heavy drinkers and abstainers. But binge drinking is the worst of all:

“This modelling approach is in line with biological pathways, where regular light to moderate drinking is associated with more favourable blood lipid profiles, fibrinogen levels, inhibition of platelet activation, and anti-inflammatory effects; irregular binge episodes, which are characteristic of the Russian style of drinking, lead to opposite effects, and an increase in hypertension and arrhythmias.”

Meantime, the evidence of a strong relationship between light-to-moderate drinking and protection against CVD continues to mount: a recent large-scale US study found significant benefits in relation to lipid profiles.

The benefits of alcohol are a J-curve — abstainers have higher risks of disease, low-moderate drinkers lower risks, and heavy/binge drinkers higher and highest risks. A study last year from rural Norway also found:

“Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was linearly associated with a decreased risk of AMI in a population in which abstaining from alcohol is not socially stigmatized.  Our results suggest that frequent alcohol consumption is most cardioprotective and that this association is not driven by misclassification of former drinkers.”

But the news gets even better for wine drinkers. A two-year Israeli trial in which people with type-2 diabetes who had been non-drinkers were asked to consume wine with dinner found that “initiating moderate wine intake, especially red wine, among well-controlled diabetics as part of a healthy diet is apparently safe and modestly decreases cardiometabolic risk”.

Another study, a large-scale meta-analysis released in March, confirmed the link between moderate drinking and lower risk of type-2 diabetes compared to both non-drinkers and heavy drinkers — something that you would think would be welcome by nanny statists arguing that diabetes is a civilisation-ending plague. The link between moderate alcohol (wine, not spirits) consumption and lower inflammatory markers — something many of us with arthritic conditions can attest to — was also confirmed in a study at the end of 2015.

While alcohol is linked to lower risk of our greatest killer, cardiovascular disease, cancer remains a key concern in relation to alcohol, and recent news isn’t as good on that front: a large-scale Swedish study last year found that while there was no association between increased alcohol consumption and overall risk breast cancer in women (a link has long been demonstrated in earlier studies), there was increased risk among women with lower body mass indices, i.e. non-obese women. However, another Swedish study found a strong link between light to moderate drinking and overall lower mortality from all causes among women, with an assessment reporting:

“Even when adjusting for education, marital status, smoking, BMI, physical fitness, diabetes and ischemic heart disease before screening, mortality risk during follow up was significantly higher among non-drinkers and heavier drinkers than among women reporting the equivalent no more than one typical drink per day.  They state that their analyses thus support a ‘J-shaped’ association between alcohol and total mortality risk, and that ‘The observed protective effect of light drinking (1–12 grams/day) could thus not be attributed to any of these known confounders.'”

But despite these studies and long list of earlier peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption, public health lobbyists are in denial about them. A Western Australian anti-alcohol campaign outright denies any CVD benefits and claims “it can only take drinking one or two drinks to affect heart rate, blood pressure, the effectiveness of the heart muscles, the amount of blood pumped, and blood flow to regions of the body” and that there is “a lack of consistent evidence to confirm that antioxidants in red wine can either prevent cardiovascular disease or be beneficial after a heart attack”.

One of the most vociferously anti-alcohol health groups, the Cancer Council, claims “drinking red wine or other types of alcoholic drinks for the prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease is not recommended … Alcohol consumption, especially at high levels, can increase the risk of developing a range of chronic diseases including, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes …”

Even the supposedly more objective National Health and Medical Research Council claims “recent scientific evidence suggests that any potential health benefits from consuming alcohol probably have been overestimated”. One of Australia’s highest-profile nanny statists, Professor Mike Daube, even wrote an article for one of the premier health lobby publications, British Medical Journal, about “alcohol’s evaporating health benefits”. The benefits, however, have proved more resilient than Daube suggested — in fact, humiliatingly for him, the BMJ itself has just published yet another study demonstrating both an increased risk of breast cancer and a lower risk of cardio-vascular disease for moderate alcohol use.

The reaction again confirms that, for outfits like FARE and other nanny state groups, the campaign against alcohol is about middle-class paternalism and ideology, rather than about hard evidence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey