Are We Overstating Alcohol’s Health Benefits?

Everyone “knows” that two glasses of red wine a day are good for your health. But, as Will Rogers said, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you: it’s what you know that ain’t so. A paper by Hans Olav Fekjær and commentaries by Jurgen Rehm and Sven Andréasson, all in the latest issue of Addiction, review the evidence.

Yes, moderate drinkers have better health, on many dimensions, than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. That’s the problem: too many dimensions, with too little biological mechanism. The logical thought is that people who drink in moderation probably have, on average, better health habits in other respects than those who don’t drink at all, since by definition they’ve avoided taking their alcohol use to excess while the abstainers either haven’t run that risk or have found that they can’t drink just a little. It’s also the case that, in Western cultures, drinking is normal while non-drinking is somewhat deviant. The fact that in India, where drinking isn’t a social norm, drinking isn’t associated with better cardiovascular health seems to me to seriously weaken the case for a causal connection in other societies.

Why the “Moderate drinking is good for what ails ya” theory has found such ready acceptance, while a comparable finding about moderate cannabis use and academic performance was ignored, is left as an exercise for the reader.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.