The headlines grab your attention.
“How much alcohol is safe to drink? None, say these researchers.” “Alcohol is a leading cause of death, disease worldwide, study says.” “No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms.”
Those recent headlines appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and BBC News. The stories that followed were similarly breathless.
Better put down that glass of wine.
But while cautioning about the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, we might also sound the alarm about hyperbole and the inherent difficulties in reporting on science.
All of the headlines cited above are based in reality. So are the accompanying articles. A massive new study recently published in The Lancet does in fact seem to indicate that the safest level of alcohol consumption is zero.
Even a brief review of the actual data, however, suggests that the threat of moderate, responsible alcohol consumption is low. It’s real, and it’s statistically significant. But it’s low.
The paper’s authors looked at hundreds of different studies conducted over the past two decades covering data from almost every country. Then they compared rates of alcohol consumption with 23 different alcohol-related health outcomes.
Among many other conclusions, the results suggest that alcohol is the seventh-leading cause of death worldwide. But even that straightforward statement is somewhat misleading, because the actual causes of all of those deaths cited were tuberculosis, self-harm (suicide), or road fatalities.
In other words, two of the three leading causes of alcohol-related death are preventable. And most people in the United States don’t die of tuberculosis, regardless of how much they drink.
So what’s the difference in risk between abstaining completely and having a drink or two each day? Not nearly as much as one might think after reading articles about the study and not the study itself.
The relative risk of the 23 studied health outcomes — breast cancer, heart disease, liver disease, traffic deaths, etc. — is obviously not zero even for people who never drink. And for those who drink one drink per day, the risk of problems increases by less than 1 percent.
In fact, even people who drink five drinks per day only face about a 37 percent higher chance of developing an alcohol related health problem in any given year compared to those who never drink. And virtually any health professional would strongly advise against having five drinks per day.
Alcohol can cause plenty of problems when used in excess, even if those problems don’t ultimately turn out to be fatal. Alcoholism is an incredibly destructive disease. It’s certainly worthwhile to be cautious and conscientious about alcohol consumption.
And many people drink more than they realize. A typical glass of wine counts as more than one drink, for example. A cocktail might be two or three.
But it’s misleading — and perhaps even counterproductive — to suggest that occasional social drinking will cause death or serious disease.
When new studies seem to dramatically overturn conventional wisdom and generate dozens of buzzy headlines, do a deep dive into the data. A more modest interpretation might not garner as many social media clicks, but it’s often closer to the truth.