Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A little wine for thy health’s sake

In May 2011 the Cancer Council of Australia issued what it called ‘Position Statement. Alcohol and cancer risk.’ Its first key message is (and I quote):

‘Alcohol use is a cause of cancer. Any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer; the level of risk increases in line with the level of consumption.’

Its second is:

‘It is estimated that 5,070 cases of cancer (or 5% of all cancers) are attributable to long-germ, chronic use of alcohol each year in Australia.’

The sleight of hand is masterful. In the first statement there is no attempt to quantify either the level of consumption (a teaspoon a week?) or the increase of risk (by 0.001%?). In the second statement there is a shift to ‘long-term chronic use of alcohol’ (a clever avoidance of use of the word ‘abuse’).

It brought forth a blistering response from the Boston School of Medicine Institute on Lifestyle and Health. ‘It is shocking that an alliance of organisations, some of which are government agencies, would agree to stand behind such a deliberately misleading misrepresentation of the science addressing the effect of alcohol on human health.’

More specifically, the Boston Institute said:

·         ‘The paper disregards the vast majority of well controlled studies which show significant and concrete public health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.’

·         ‘This Position Statement conflates the effects of excessive and moderate alcohol consumption, and in so doing creates confusion and concern, with the apparent purpose of advancing a prohibitionist agenda.’

It is this (surely deliberate) merging of moderate and excessive consumption of alcohol that is so breathtakingly dishonest in the context of an apparent research debate.

But it gets worse. The greatest (by a considerable margin) cause of death in the Western World is coronary heart disease, and the Boston Institute does no more than state the facts when it says:

·         ‘Scientific data over more than three decades have clearly shown that moderate drinkers are at considerably lower risk of cardiovascular disease; and newer studies also indicate that they are at lower risk of dementia and many other diseases of ageing.’

The Position Statement excels itself when it says:

‘Earlier research which reported that low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption might reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease may be flawed.’

Note the all-important use of the words ‘might’ and ‘may’.

The Cancer Council has well and truly slain the smoking dragon (which I applaud, particularly having regard to the fact that I have never smoked) but its attempt to portray alcohol (regardless of its form) as damaging as smoking is appalling, as is the assumed link between the two.

Compared, it says, with non-smoking, non-drinkers, those who are regular heavy users of both substances, drinking more four or more standard drinks and smoking 40 or more cigarettes a day, have a risk of cancer 35 times greater than that of the abstainers. It is silent about the relative risk of simply smoking at that level, but I’ll wager there’s little difference.

Coming back to reality, there are a number of truths, some inconvenient, some altogether different.

First, most wine is consumed by most people in the context of a meal and over a time span of one to three hours. That is absolutely not the case with beer, spirits and/or RTDs.

Second, there is peer-reviewed evidence to show that the regular consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol does not cause the harm associated with weekend binge drinking.

Binge drinking is a very significant issue in the UK, but is also a social problem in Australia. Here the inconvenient truths come thick and fast. Research from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that wine is by far the least represented alcoholic drink consumed by those arrested for disorderly conduct on Friday and Saturday nights.

Research from the National Drug Strategy taskforce likewise shows wine to be the least favoured alcohol type for young people, including those who binge. Cask wine is considered the preferred alcohol type by only 1.6% of 14 to 19 year olds who drink, compared to 23% for beer and 44% for RTDs, the remainder for spirits.

An inconvenient truth for all sectors of the alcohol spectrum, including wine (especially fortified) is the deep, grievous and lasting harm it causes to indigenous people. It is beholden to winemakers, large and small, to do what they can to ameliorate this harm. The wine industry has always acknowledged that obligation, and will continue to do so. But to formulate a broad based policy driven solely by this issue – that is, extending to the entire population – would be akin to a hair on the tail wagging the dog.

There are no easy answers in this debate. Plain packaging and restricted access have an Orwellian feel. Impossible? Now, perhaps, but in the future it may be a different story unless the wine industry is able to tell the truth about wine to the silent majority, the bureaucrats, and our political masters.

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