Alcohol: Keeping the Public in the Dark

Scientific medical research conducted around the world has made it clear that the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages (beer, spirits, and wine) is associated with better health and greater longevity than abstaining or drinking heavily. 1

As reported in The New York Times, “A drink or two of wine, beer, or liquor is, experts say, often the best nonprescription way to prevent heart attacks -- better than a low-fat diet or weight loss, better even than vigorous exercise. Moderate drinking can even help prevent strokes, amputated limbs and dementia.” 2 A leading medical researcher, Dr. Curtis Ellison, emphasizes that “the science supporting the protective role of alcohol is indisputable, no one questions it anymore.... There have been hundreds of studies, all consistent.” 3 In addition, moderate consumption of alcohol appears to be beneficial to reducing or preventing even more diseases and health problems:

  • Angina Pectoris 4
  • Bone Fractures and Osteoporosis 5
  • Diabetes 6
  • Digestive Ailments 7
  • Duodenal Ulcer 8
  • Erectile Dysfunction (sexual impotence) 9
  • Essential Tremors 10
  • Gallstones 11
  • Hearing Loss12
  • Hepatitis A 13
  • Kidney Stones 14
  • Liver Disease 15
  • Macular Degeneration (Blindness) 16
  • Pancreatic Cancer 17
  • Parkinson's Disease 18
  • Poor Cognition and Memory 19
  • Poor Physical Condition in Elderly 20
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis 21
  • Stress and Depression 22
  • Type B Gastritis 23

It’s clear that abstaining from alcohol and heavy drinking are both health risks -- they’re both associated with poorer health and shorter life. On the other hand, moderate drinking, unless contra-indicated, is associated with better physical and mental health and longer life. These are medical facts many people and groups don’t want the public to know, and they’ve been very successful in suppressing this health-promoting knowledge.

For example, a poll conducted by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center found that 80% of Americans falsely thought the health drawbacks of alcohol consumption far outweighed the benefits. 24 Over half the public falsely believes that distilled spirits contain either substantial or high cholesterol counts, although they actually contain none. 25 And few realize that, in spite of its caloric count, alcohol doesn’t appear to contribute to weight gain. In fact, drinking is often associated with small weight losses in women, according to research. 26

In spite of the medical evidence, federal policy has long been to reduce alcohol consumption in the United States. The National Institute of Health funded an early study that found moderate drinkers to be less likely to suffer heart disease, but actually refused to let the Harvard researchers publish the results because the agency considered them “socially undesirable.” 27

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other temperance-oriented special interest groups successfully lobbied to prevent alcohol beverage labels or advertising from even suggesting that consumers could consult their physicians or federal agencies to learn the health consequences of drinking in moderation. The ruling was praised by CSPI, saying “Although a blanket ban of all health claims and health-related statements would have been preferable, we believe the regulations effectively shut the door” to informing the public about the healthfulness of drinking in moderation. 28

One scholar has pointed out that “By preventing the alcohol industry from communicating the health benefits of its products, anti-alcohol groups and government agencies ensure that public debate about alcohol and public health will be dominated by anti-alcohol groups and government agencies.” 29 It recently took Congressional action to force the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to grant any funds at all from its very large budget to investigate the health consequences (not benefits) of moderate alcohol consumption. Apparently, NIAAA expected that the results would be positive, so it resisted funding such research until forced to do so.

The restricted debate is muddied by a systematic strategy of not investigating or reporting the positive effects of moderate drinking, of stigmatizing alcohol, and of minimizing or even misrepresenting the facts. Although prohibitionists of old routinely made stigmatizing statements about alcohol, all of the statements below, which are either false or highly misleading at best, were made by officials representing government agencies in our time:

  • “Alcohol is the dirtiest drug we have. It permeates and damages all tissues. No other drug can cause the degree of harm it does.”
  • “Alcohol is harmful to the body.”
  • “Alcohol is a poison, and drinking it might lead to death.”
  • “Alcohol is toxic “(no level of consumption indicated).
  • “The effects of alcohol on men” (no level of consumption indicated) “are hormone levels change, causing lower sex drive and enlarged breasts.”
  • “Alcohol is a gateway drug leading people into illicit drug use.”
  • “Alcohol” (no level indicated) “can cause deterioration of muscle.” 30

The effort to stigmatize alcohol includes promoting the prohibitionist belief that there is no difference between moderate drinking and alcohol abuse--the two are portrayed as one and the same. This leads the U.S. Department of Education to direct schools and colleges to reject educational programs which promote responsible drinking among adults and instead favor a simplistic call for total abstinence. 31

Suppressing the facts about the benefits of moderate drinking may lead to serious consequences. The Journal of the American Medical Association has estimated that as many as 80,000 American deaths could be prevented each and every year by the moderate consumption of alcohol beverages. 32 Moderate drinking saves more lives than are lost by alcohol abuse. 33 Nevertheless, efforts to keep people in the dark and to reduce their alcohol consumption continue, often under force of law.

In 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, the U.S. Supreme court overturned a state law banning offsite advertising of alcohol prices. The goal of the law was to reduce the lawful consumption of alcoholic beverages. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the state’s “asserted interest is to keep legal users of a product or service ignorant in order to manipulate their choices in the marketplace” and that in such cases the “’interest’ is per se illegitimate and can no more justify regulation of ‘commercial’ speech than it can justify regulation of ‘noncommercial’ speech.” 34

Keeping people ignorant of information “for their own good” is a dangerous paternalistic practice that reflects a distrust of people and their ability to make informed choices. . It’s common in totalitarian societies and dictatorships, but is totally unacceptable in a free society.

Let the truth be heard.

References

  • 1. Health benefits of moderate drinking are detailed in Ford, G. The Science of Healthy Drinking. San Francisco, CA: Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003. The book is summarized at https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/HealthIssues/1055517115.html. For more on alcohol and health, visit https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcohol-and-health-medical-findings
  • 2. Zuger, A. The case for drinking (all together now: In moderation!). The New York Times, 12-31-02, F1.
  • 3. Curtis Ellison, M.D., quoted by Zuger, A. The case for drinking (all together now: In moderation!). The New York Times, 12-31-02, F1.
  • 4. Camargo, C. A., et al. Moderate alcohol consumption and the risk for angina pectoris or myocardial infarction in U.S. male physicians. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1997, 126(5), in press.
  • 5. Holbrook, T., et al. A prospective study of alcohol consumption and bone mineral density. British Medical Journal, 1993, 306, 1506-1509. Also see Christian, J. Moderate alcohol consumption helps preserve reasoning skills. Paper presented at the Research Society of Alcoholism, San Antonio, Texas, June 30, 1993. In addition to reasoning skills, Christian also reported greater bone density and a lower rate of death among moderate drinkers compared to abstainers and heavy drinkers; Rapuri, P. B., et al. Alcohol intake and bone metabolism in elderly women. American Journal of Clinical Nursing, 2000, 72, 1206-1213.
  • 6. Rimm, E. B., et al. Prospective study of cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and the risk of diabetes in men. British Medical Journal, 1995, 310, 555-559.
  • 7. Weisse, M. I., et al. Wine as a digestive aid: comparative antimicrobial effects of bismuth salicylate and red and white table wine. British Medical Journal, 1995, 311, 1457-1460; Probert, C., Emmett, P., and Heaton, K. Quarterly Journal of Medicine, 1995, 88, 311-315; Weisse, M., Eberly, B., and Person, D. Wine as a digestive aid: comparative antimicrobial effects of bismuth salicylate and red and white wine. British Medical Journal, 1995, 311, 1657-1660.
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  • 23. Brenner, H., et al. Relation of smoking and alcohol and coffee consumption to active Helicobacter pylori infection: cross sectional study. British Medical Journal, 1997, 315, 1389-1492.
  • 24. “Monitoring the Future” research study, 2003. University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, Survey Research Center. (http://monitoringthefuture.org)
  • 25. Dolliver, M. It’s a sign of the Atkins-crazed time. Adweek, 12-8-03, p. 24.
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  • 28. Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Alcohol Policies Project. TTB’s New Guidelines Doom Health Claims for Labels and Advertising. Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Alcohol Policies Project news release, 3-3-03.
  • 29. Balko, R. Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Washington, DC: Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 501, 12-5-03.
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  • 34. 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, 617 U.S. 484 (1996) at 518 (Thomas, J., concurring)

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