What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol death study

CDC binge drinkingThis is not a critique of the science in the Centers for Disease Control study that equated drinking wine with dinner as binge drinking. I’m not a doctor or researcher. I’m also not questioning the health, emotional, and social costs of alcoholism; I’ve attended too many funerals.

Rather, this is a critique (based on a story I wrote for the Wine Business International trade magazine) of the shoddy and slipshod reporting done by most of the media, wine and otherwise, when the study was released. That is something I am qualified to do after 35 years as a journalist.

Journalism, something that I love and have spent my professional life trying to do well, is in a sorry state. How the study was covered demonstrates this all too well. Too many news organizations, regardless of size or reputation, are lazy, sloppy, and willing to accept what someone says — be it the CDC, the government, or big business — without asking questions. And journalism is about asking questions. These days, though, it’s cheaper and easier and less offensive to advertisers if you re-write a news release, throw some hyperlinks in it, and call it reporting. Or rewrite what another news organization has already rewritten.

My reason for being, even in wine, is to try not to do that. Here are the questions the media didn’t ask when the CDC study was released:

• Where did the excessive drinking standard come from? Why is the standard eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men? In fact, these come from a 2006 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and are based on the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines: “drink alcoholic beverages… in moderation, which is defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.” Which is not exactly the same thing as excessive drinking.

• Why does this study contradict what one eminent cardiologist told me “is a reasonable certainty, based on hundreds of studies over the past decade, that moderate drinking as part of the Mediterranean diet that includes fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and wine, will benefit cardiac health. It’s the difference between partying and wine with a meal.”

• Why now? Why is alcohol suddenly in the spotlight? Note that the CDC study came in the wake of the proposal by the National Transportation Safety Board to lower the blood alcohol limit for drunken driving by one-third.

• Why these solutions — higher taxes, fewer liquor licenses for stores and restaurants, and an end to wet-dry elections and state deregulation? Will these prevent alcoholism, or will they penalize responsible drinkers?

4 thoughts on “What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol death study

  • By John Hilliard -

    No amount of arguing can convince people of something that their paycheck requires they not understand.

  • By Karen -

    Dude – it’s actually much worse than you think. I’m a science reporter who is used to parsing scientific literature and your post intrigued me so I looked into it a bit. For starters, the CDC is NOT defining binge drinking as a glass or two of wine with dinner, they’re actually just saying they consider anything more than that as excessive. You can quibble with that ( I do) but they’re actually defining binge drinking as four drinks in one sitting for a woman and five drinks in one sitting for a man, which is more reasonable, IMHO.
    Furthermore, this isn’t an actual study where somebody tried to quantify the effects of a drink or two a day in a measured, controlled way, it’s just an ESTIMATE based on inferences drawn from a whole bunch of different studies with different methods and different researchers. The studies on which this estimate is based also used all different definitions of heavy drinking, some of which are more reasonable than others, but most of which are much higher than one drink a day for women and two for men and much closer to the definition of binge drinking. The report itself is straightforward about all this but the press release too many reporters cribbed from is poorly written and doesn’t explain this very well.
    I won’t keep boring you with the details but bottom line: the CDC is not actually saying that drinking wine with dinner is binge drinking or could lead to a host of ill effects. They’re just saying drinking a great deal more than a glass of wine with dinner every day is bad for you, which shouldn’t really be news to anyone. So the so-called journalists you’re slamming didn’t just fail to ask questions, they actually got the basic premise of the story completely, flat-out wrong.

  • By Karen -

    Or, I suppose, if I was feeling more generous, it would be fair to say that they somehow didn’t notice that the basic premise of the articles they were writing wasn’t actually supported by the research they’re citing. Which means they could not have actually read the research or talked to the actual researchers.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thanks to everyone for the comments, and especially for Karen for critiquing my reporting. I just wish more people who cared about wine cared enough to understand what’s going on with the CDC and the Neo-Prohibitionists.

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