Truth in Reporting: Two New Conflicting Studies on Alcohol

November 2, 2010

This blog is not so much about the issue itself, but about the way the issue is being presented. Sadly, we’ve come to expect political stories to be untrustworthy and are unsurprised when their “findings” are the result of other motives. But what about health stories? Studies which purport to find cancer links contradict themselves daily–for a long time, people were encouraged to take multivitamins to prevent certain cancers only to retract that with the news that actually, certain vitamins in the all-purpose multi- increase the risk of those same cancers!

An interesting study that cycles around is that of the benefits and risks of alcohol consumption. Most newsreaders have read the “doctor’s advice” that wine is good for the heart, then read that risks outrank benefits, then read that retracted again so many times that the “facts” seem impossible to discern. A recent British study concluded that alcohol was more dangerous than “heroin or crack cocaine.” Ranking substances from 1 to 100 in terms of the danger they posed to the individual and to society as a whole, “experts” determined alcohol ranked around 72 in terms of danger, higher than all other substances. The lowest? LSD and Exstacy. One person involved with the study went so far as to say that “riding a horse” was actually more dangerous than using Exstasy. Now, the average person will obviously (or should) react in shock to hear that heroin is “safer” than beer– but to give the study credit (or take it away, depending on how you look at it), since societal damage is assessed it’s very easy to see how alcohol will beat out LSD in terms of danger– alcohol use is much more widespread. 3/4 of everyone on the planet consume alcohol, compared to very small percentage of worldwide regular LSD users. Alcohol is legal in most countries, and generally socially acceptable across wide sections of society. It’s also cheap and prevalent. So, even if only a small percentage of regualar alcohol users develop problems–whether they become addicted, or have wild mood swings and violent temperaments when imbibing, or drive under the influence and cause accidents—a great amount of toll is taken on a society. In the US and England, drinking has often been studied as being of “a different variety” than the drinking in European or Asian countries: the amount and type of excess and cultural assessment of alcohol is notable. Out of a history of Puritanism, a Prohibition past, and other such subconscious elements, many observers have labeled the drinking of Brits and Americans as almost “Frat-party-like” in comparison to the continual, relaxed, daily presence alcohol has in a place like Greece or Paris. What’s interesting about the new “alcohol is more dangerous than heroin” story is that the supporters and funders of it are, at least in part, a faction of a political movement that seeks to decriminalize certain drugs and introduce higher price-control of alcohol, as this Scottish news story points to.

So why does this matter? Certainly alcoholism can be devastating, drunk driving is far too widespread and often results in heartbreaking results, and being wary of over-indulgence is a good thing for anyone’s health. But contrast the above hyperbolic story with the following story, which just recently ran in Time magazine and details a study that came out of a long period of observation on 3 focus groups: heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers, and abstainers. Of the three groups, the moderate drinkers were those to typically live the longest; surprisingly, the heavy drinkers almost always outlived the complete abstainers! Of course, the story points out that many factors are at play in this result, one primarily being that moderate drinkers most often drink in social situations and have more active lifestyles, so the combination of being less lonely, less stressed, and often in the habit of getting more exercise (to cut those excess carbs) greatly contributed to the higher life-expectancy they had compared to their non drinking counterparts.

Now, which of these stories is most true? The problem is, both have shades of truth and both have ulterior motives and possibly less-than-objective funding. Both hit the web and the 24 hour news rotation; one group will remember one story, another group will remember the other story. Will policy changes occur from either? Only if a party in power happens to be strong adherents of one version or the other, which usually occurs when they were already predisposed (or prefunded) to favor a particular story.

What we need as consumers in society when it comes to health stories is truth. We must demand that; not just in terms of alcohol or drugs, but in terms of the safety of our food supply, air quality, water quality, etc. If we aren’t getting the truth in these areas now, it won’t matter later if the truth comes out for us personally because it will be too late. The truth is, the funding that went into both of these above linked stories was probably a waste. We can look at modern society and at every country’s current laws and determine what is realistic, admirable, and possible. If you read the comment threads on any of these stories, you will find posters claiming that “in spite of overwhelming proof” drugs aren’t legalized/alcohol isn’t banned/we still drink coffee (to highlight a few asinine remarks). Facts lie in the middle of such absurd “certainties.” Sensible drug laws are needed, laws that reflect reality and common-sense. It’s hard to analyze the real impact of regular alcohol use in and of itself because so many lifestyle factors, education factors, health-care opportunities, etc. play into the choices people make. It seems that, for the most part, alcohol use in relatively moderate consumption is either- a) beneficial, or b) of no more harm than any number of daily decisions people make. So, if moderation greatly enhances an individuals quality of life while not harming another person’s quality of life, then that decision seems logical. Therefore, the real public health concerns are in aggressively enforcing alcohol violations including drunk driving, underage consumption, etc– for the sake of safety, not punishment. Therefore, there must be more affordable and dependable public transportation (which is  a major factor that cuts down drunk driving incidents in many countries), more widespread and available counseling and rehabilitation facilities, and more realistic treatment of all drugs. The key in that sentence is rehabilitation rather than criminalization. Certainly, groups pushing for the legalization of certain drugs with their eye on then profiting from that drug is not proper motivation, but honest evaluation and admittance of what drug harms/benefits are is necessary and is a point many of these voices have made. The US has funded many studies on the dangers and benefits of marijuana, yet rejected each study’s conclusions when they didn’t match up with the results the President at each particular time had hoped for. Thus we have the  situation in California where a state has tried to have one marijuana law while in violation of federal law, but everywhere in the US dangerous narcotics are prescribed for pain daily to folks susceptible to addiction.

In closing, can we expect real news when we see these flashy headlines? Should we even try to? Or should we just enjoy stories like the following, which obviously gives someone what they want to hear:
“Smart People Drink More Alcohol”




One Response to “Truth in Reporting: Two New Conflicting Studies on Alcohol”

  1. […] into the conversation or at least use them as an example of the situation we find ourselves in. I wrote a blog several years ago about two conflicting alcohol use pieces–one of which is very… I read a lot of science these days, and as someone who didn’t appreciate or study science […]

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