The Lancet has published a study whose conclusions are in fact misleading and liable to unfortunate interpretation (1). This new salvo from the hygiene industry has created a great stir in the media because of its publication in a reputable medical journal, in this instance one which was lax in justifying its conclusions.
This study referenced (“meta-analysed”) 694 (!) previous studies that had produced results differing from that of the current study, but which were systematically ruled out on quality grounds by the authors of the current document. They constructed a real statistical Heath Robinson contraption, with huge amounts of data, much of it from estimates or figures taken from statistics from 195 countries… could they all be reliable? All these variables themselves have a not insignificant margin of error which, taken together, makes the conclusions drawn questionable, to say the least.
These 694 former studies (1996 to 2015) focussed on very diverse populations throughout the world, with radically differing consumption habits, without distinguishing between wine, beer or spirits, which is however a significant determining factor in estimating any risk to health. So just one more study which is not applicable to European populations, who tend to consume relatively more wine, which as a product consumed at a reasonable dose of 200-300 ml/day, has a proven protective effect at least for the cardiovascular system.
It also holds alcohol – based on questionable data and without any reference to the amount ingested – responsible for a large number of deaths, including many cancers and 22 other diseases! The authors admit in their conclusions that one of the weaknesses of the study is that they do not know how people consume these calculated average doses. But this is the very crux of the problem: binge drinking a large quantity of alcohol and having an accident or falling into an alcohol induced coma, or drinking 100-200ml of wine every day have completely different consequences for health.
The study does however acknowledge some benefit for cardiovascular diseases but only in the over-60s (which is not surprising, given that it corresponds to the peak frequency of these diseases). But that benefit is offset by the other risks.
All this work goes to conclude, as a commentator on this study points out, (2) that compared to mortality rates for teetotallers (914 deaths/100,000 persons/year), drinking 10 g of alcohol per day “increases” this number to 918, i.e. an increase in mortality of 0.004%…. And now the entire global press is trumpeting that danger lurks in drinking alcohol from the first drop, when it is a completely speculative generalisation. Without denying the major problems of alcohol abuse, we should just take a moment to think about the much higher mortality from road accidents, smoking, drug overdoses, suicide, murders, not to mention world hunger and armed conflicts.
In Switzerland, for example, prohibition zealots are once again aiming at the wrong targets and even the spokesman from CHUV’s alcohol service had trouble remaining politically correct in his interview with RTS, comparing the risk defined in this study to that taken when driving his car. That’s all there is to it.
In short, a monstrously large study in sheer volume of data (to look at it purely statistically), but useless and fallacious. WHO (which supported it) and Bill Gates (who funded it) would do better to invest in other higher priority areas…