We’ll begin with a decent summary of three recent pieces– from the New York Times, Wired magazine, and the Boston Globe’s Stat media– on how the alcohol industry influences research on the health benefits of moderate drinking. All three challenge the widespread belief, carefully nurtured by that same alcohol industry, that consuming a certain number of alcoholic drinks is actually good for you, healthwise. Given the staggering amount of evidence that seems to contradict that notion, it’s become amazingly widespread. A quote: “A 2015 Gallup poll found that 1 in 5 Americans believe “moderate” drinking is good for health, and that this was especially true among those who drink alcohol.”
Of course it is. If you’re already a drinker, wouldn’t you want to read something that made you feel better about yourself? I would.
It appears that the alcohol industry, like the tobacco industry and the oil and gas industry and others whose products represent a significant health risk, has long sought to accumulate scientific evidence to contradict that reality. Given the amount of revenue involved, this should be no mystery to any of us. They’re seeking a kind of legitimacy that paid advertising simply cannot provide.
Fortunately for the corporations, modern research has become so costly that scientists who want to conduct it must range far and wide for funding. Outside the government and few giant foundations, there’s really only one major source for that level of investment: the purveyors themselves. And it seems that even government agencies like NIAAA have aggressively pursued corporate cash.
But if they foot the bill, most corporations expect to have a say in how it’s used. Again, no surprise.
If you were CEO or chief marketing exec of a big corporation that sold alcoholic beverages, would you want to bear the expense of research that, in the final analysis, suggested your product was actually bad for your customers’ health? I seriously doubt that. After all, you can’t afford to stop selling the stuff. That’s your salary. It’s how you get promoted. What you want and need is science that seems to confirm your biases. That you can hold up to counter the critics.
Especially if you can claim that your product, if used properly, is good for your customers.
So how does industry-funded research arrive at the conclusion that moderate drinking, usually defined as two per day for men, and half that for women, actually benefit our health? By failing to take into account the abstainer bias. That describes the influence of former drinkers in a sample. They’re usually counted along with other nondrinkers, those who have never engaged in drinking at all.
But the category also includes people in recovery, many of whom have already experienced damage to their health from past drinking. Their presence in significant numbers will bias the sample of nondrinkers, making it seem as if their health status is worse than it actually is.
Once those former drinkers have been excluded, that bias disappears– and with it, the alleged benefits of moderate drinking.
Here’s my belief: If someone chooses to drink, there’s no reason for anyone else to interfere. So long, that is, as it doesn’t cause problems, health or otherwise, for themselves or others. But surely their decision should be made with a reasonable knowledge of the facts– and free of the influence of industry propaganda.