Did you catch the recent reports in the New York Times of a major National Institutes of Health study on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption? It’s a great story of how useful scientific research can be when done with abundant resources and talent, courtesy of $100 million in funding largely from the liquor industry. See “Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund Study on Benefits of Moderate Drinking” by Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times, March 17, 2018.
It was going to be a study that could
change the American diet, a huge clinical trial that might well deliver
all the medical evidence needed to recommend a daily alcoholic drink as
part of a healthy lifestyle.
how two prominent scientists and a senior federal health official
pitched the project during a presentation at the luxurious Breakers
Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2014. And the audience members who were
being asked to help pay for the $100 million study seemed receptive:
They were all liquor company executives.
While the study was wrapped in the normal robes of pure, unbiased research in the quest for truth, the information the New York Times was able to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests and good investigative work reveals that the researchers behind the study were pitching it to the alcohol industry as a great opportunity to definitively prove that moderate alcohol consumption is healthy. Fortunately, thanks to the scrutiny of journalism (yes, real journalism still happens occasionally!), the NIH has stopped the now-controversial study. See the NYT article, “It Was Supposed to Be an Unbiased Study of Drinking. They Wanted to Call It ‘Cheers’” by Roni Caryn Rabin, June 18, 2018.
It’s “common knowledge” these days that moderate alcohol consumption can be healthy. A little wine in particular is great for your heart., right? Hasn’t science proved that? That was the conclusion that we’ve been hearing for years based on some early studies in the 70s and 80s. But since then there have been some very good reasons to question that story. First, those studies don’t actually prove that alcohol was the reason for the health benefits that were reported. In comparing wine drinkers to those who don’t drink wine, an important detail not properly accounted for is that those who drink wine tend to be wealthier, upper-class people who have better access to health care. It may be their wealth and higher-quality health care that improves health, not their wine. Later reports challenged the claims of health benefits and suggested that any such benefits, if real, would be very small. The previous studies touting health benefits were said to be the result of “confused research.” For example, the apparent heart benefits were most visible in the heavy drinkers, not the light drinkers, but the harms of heavy drinking obviously outweighed the benefits of clearer arteries. There was much to question in the work claiming health benefits to drinking.
Then came the World Health Organization’s 2014 World Cancer Report that claimed that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe because of the increased risk of cancer associated with alcohol. (See discussion at WebMD and Medscape.) So there has been a growing need for the beverage industry to find something they can hang their hat on and claim that their products are healthy after all. And for $100 million, a group of scientists appeared ready to deliver. As Roni Rabin reports,
The study was intended to test the hypothesis that one drink a day is better for one’s heart than none, among other benefits of moderate drinking. But its design was such that it would not pick up harms, such as an increase in cancers or heart failure associated with alcohol, the investigation found.
Scientists who designed the trial were aware it was not large enough to detect a rise in breast cancer, and acknowledged to grant reviewers in 2016 that the study was focused on benefits and “not powered to identify negative health effects.”
“Clearly, there was a sense that this trial was being set up in a way that would maximize the chances of showing a positive effect of alcohol,” Dr. Collins said last week as he accepted his advisers’ recommendation to terminate the trial.
“Understandably, the alcoholic beverage industry would like to see that.”
Of course, the scientists seeking big bucks from the liquor industry didn’t exactly guarantee that the desired result would be delivered. But they certainly created that hope and expectation. And they allowed the industry to work with them in designing the study. And guess what? The study was designed to appear comprehensive and thorough, while apparently masking the harmful effects of alcohol.
The risk of increased cancer, such as increased breast cancer in women, is a significant harmful effect, but to see it with statistical confidence requires a much longer study than the one planned, and requires a larger sample size, otherwise the effect will be buried in random noise. The selected sample size and duration would enhance detection of expected positive effects in some areas while reducing risk of detecting some key negative effects. Further, while two drinks a day has long been the threshold for “moderate” drinking, the study would involve only one drink a day, which reduces the risk of falls, car accidents, etc. Further, those most at risk for health problems from alcohol would be excluded from the study.
Whatever health benefits might be found would not reflect the real impact on society that “moderate” drinking brings, but would be used to justify increase sales to millions of “moderate” drinkers likely to ramp up their “moderation” and bring a healthy return on the $100 million investment for the “definitive” study. A smart business deal, indeed, accurately foretold in Joseph Smith’s 1833 revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (Doctrine and Covenants 89:4):
In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation….
But wait, what’s the difference between conspiracy and just a clever business model? It’s a fair question, but the more conspiratorial aspects of the story come in the revelation that the scientists were deliberately obscuring the source of the funding they were seeking and were hiding their association the liquor peddlers. Not exactly the above-board transparency and spotless ethics we expect, or at least often hear about, when it comes to academic research.
The health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have not been proven and may be a myth when the negative issues are fully considered. For now, at least, it looks like the Word of Wisdom is back in style, at least that part about alcohol. And I think “moderate” smoking isn’t a good idea, either. Meanwhile, while doing the best I can with the tidbits we have been given, I will gladly welcome any further updates the Lord may wish to reveal regarding other details (green tea? “paleo” diets? quinoa vs. wheat? any good foods to reduce hair loss?).