They’re telling us it’s about drinking. But it’s really about the social cost of alcoholism, which isn’t the same thing
The surprise about the recent study equating drinking alcohol with death is not that it gathered headlines. Of course it gathered headlines. The surprise is that so many reputable researchers said the headlines were overblown. Or, as University of Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter wrote after parsing the study’s numbers: “Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”
Aaron E. Carroll, who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote a reasoned critique in the New York Times. For one thing, he said, studies that amass numbers from other studies have inherent problems. For another, “just because something is unhealthy in large amounts doesn’t mean that we must completely abstain. … Consider that 15 desserts a day would be bad for you. This could lead to assertions that ‘there’s no safe amount of dessert.’ But it doesn’t mean you should never, ever eat dessert.”
What’s going on is a well-meaning attempt to cut the social cost of drinking, which is enormous. Alcoholism, in both dollars and misery, has been a scourge throughout recorded history. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that excessive drinking costs $250 billion annually and kills almost 90,000 people each year. There is also ample evidence that alcoholism devastates particular communities, be it native American reservations or blighted urban neighborhoods. The CDC, in fact, has proposed tighter alcohol retail regulation to help those communities. Do enough research, and you can even find suggestions that alcoholism played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And none of that even begins to describe that agony that alcoholism wreaks among friends and families. A friend of mine, an alcoholic, was reduced to living in his car at one point, and died surrounded by vodka bottles.
But well-meaning isn’t enough
Cutting alcoholism rates among native American youth, which are among the highest in the country, has absolutely nothing to do with whether I drink wine with dinner. It’s telling that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, perhaps the most high-profile anti-drinking group in the country, doesn’t go that far. MADD says the focus should be on the worst cases – the chronic abusers who drink and drive despite arrests, fines, and jail.
But the CDC and its neo-Prohibitionist allies have decided to target all of us. I’ve asked them why, and the standard response is that drinking is unhealthy. Which, as noted, is difficult to argue with.
My guess is that the neo-Prohibitionists are working off the success that anti-smoking groups have had since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report. Their mistake, of course, is that drinking and smoking are not the same thing. One can drink in moderation; one can’t smoke that way. And smoking’s social cost, as terrible as it is, is not like alcoholism’s. It’s rare anyone dies in their car because they’re addicted to nicotine.
Why anyone thinks that studies scaring social wine drinkers will stop alcoholics from drinking is beyond me; the issue is much more complex than that. Hopefully, the CDC and its allies will eventually figure this out, and we can come up with a reasonable and effective program to reduce alcoholism.
Until then, I’ll keep a wary eye out for those deadly desserts.
More about the CDC and drinking
• The federal government’s three-drink limit
• What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol study
• Bacon, wine, and what we eat and drink
This week’s wine news: Alcoholism in the restaurant business, plus Big Wine wants to move into weed and more Chinese booze fraud
• Staying sober: Nation’s Restaurant News looks at subject rarely discussed – what it calls “the culture of alcoholism and substance abuse in the restaurant business. “ In this part of the on-going series, Bret Thorne talks to a prominent Atlanta-area chef who had a choice at age 30 – stop drinking or die. “The whole lifestyle — you’re in a place that has alcohol. There’s always alcohol in the kitchen, behind the bar, and after the adrenaline of an awesome service, it was typically followed by chasing that buzz with alcohol, and then usually cocaine.”
• If it’s good enough for wine: Marijuana Business Daily (and no, I’m not making that up) reports that North America’s largest wine distributor will become the the exclusive product distributor for one of Canada’s largest licensed cannabis producers. Great North Distributors, a wholly owned Canadian subsidiary of U.S.-based Southern Glazer’s, will serve as exclusive representative for Aphria’s adult-use cannabis products in Canada. This is yet another foray by U.S. wine-related companies into Canada’s legal weed business, including Big Wine stalwart Constellation Brands..
• $15.6 million worth of fakes: Chinese police arrested 15 people suspected of producing more than 55,000 counterfeit bottles of high-end booze, says Reuters. Police in the southern province of Fujian broke up three gangs running workshops that made fake bottles of several famous brands of baijiu, a fiery Chinese spirit. The gangs bought cheap liquor for about 10 yuan (about US$1.56) a bottle and pour it into the counterfeit bottles, which they would sell for up to 400 yuan (about US$62) each. To give you an idea about what they were doing, this is not unlike filling empty bottles of pricey white Burgundy with Two-buck Chuck chardonnay.
Wonder why government doesn’t seem to work anymore? The Wine Curmudgeon, after poring through hundreds of news stories (and yes, that pun is fully intended), has discovered the answer: Our leaders are drunk, often from wine — call it the drunken politician conspiracy theory. Where’s
The latest development comes from Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta. The mayor told a city council meeting: ?I have received multiple complaints about council members getting blotto at community events, ? and that he has received reports of his peers being ?totally drunk ? on wine.
Frankly, if this happens in Canada — where politics is much more convivial than it is in the U.S., and where we know they drink beer — then we’re on to something. And this is not an isolated incident. It seems to be going on everywhere and at all levels of government:
? The California state senator who told state police he only had three glasses of wine when they pulled him over for drunk driving.
? A Google search for “Congressman drunk driving” turns up a quarter-million results, questioning the sobriety of everyone from house speakers to U.S. senators, and from every party imaginable. Imagine if I had used Congresspeople.
? A Memphis city councilwoman, who may have been drunk at a council meeting.
In fact, once I discovered this pattern, the CDC’s anti-drinking crusade made perfect sense. The federal health cops are trying to save the government from itself; how else can it assure its funding unless someone is sober enough to vote?
And scores now make sense in a way they never have before. If you’re getting loaded, what’s the easiest way to figure out what to drink? Check the score. Who wants to get trashed on a 73-point wine?
The Wine Curmudgeon will periodically relax his long-time ban on wine-related health news on the blog to remind everyone why there is a ban on health news on the blog. Like when we’re told wine will kill you — or not:
? A former World Health Organization official says “moderate drinking is better than abstaining and heavy drinking is worse than abstaining – ? however the moderate amounts can be higher than the guidelines say, ? as much as a bottle of wine a day.
? A current World Health Organization officlal says half of new cancers over the next 20 years are preventable if people change their lifestyles, and that includes giving up drinking.
How are we supposed to make a decision given such contradictory opinions from two people who seem to have the same qualifications? It’s enough, if you don’t mind the bad joke, to drive one to drink.
Some of this, as noted before, is sloppy reporting. But some of it is the medical community, which often lumps drinking with tobacco as inherently evil — except when it doesn’t. Too many studies are either limited in scope or seem to pick and choose to fit the researcher’s agenda. Cases in point: The alcoholism rate in the U.S. is about 8 percent for adults, while it may be as high as 14 percent in Russia. And that a majority of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. involve non-Latino whites, but that the highest death rates were among Native Americans and Alaska Natives. None of the numbers offers the demographic pattern for a one size fits all solution.
One day, perhaps, the medical community will figure this out. Until then, the ban remains.