Thursday 23 March 2017

Moderate drinking: doubt, denial and whataboutery

Yet another study has shown that teetotallers have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular death and death. The study was published in the British Medical Journal and involved nearly two million people, including 280,000 people who had never drunk alcohol. It was conducted by researchers at Cambridge University and University College, and the non-drinker category was split into never drinkers and former drinkers to prevent the usual squeals of 'sick quitter!' from the deniers in 'public health'. The table of results are at the bottom of this post.

I've written a full post about this for Spectator Health so please read that first, but here are a few additional thoughts.

The BMJ study is difficult to argue with, but the usual suspects have been out in force to sow as much doubt as they can. They have opted for a strategy that they would claim was ripped out of the 'Big Tobacco playbook' if other people did it. It takes three forms: outright denial, raising spurious methodological objections, and diverting attention to other issues.

Using examples from the last twelve hours, let me illustrate how this works.


Ian Gilmore of the Alcohol Health Alliance, a long time foe of booze, went for the old trick of saying 'correlation is not causation' without explaining why we should not infer causation after 40 years of the same findings being produced. Doubt is his product.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “As the authors of the study say, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions from the study about cause and effect between moderate alcohol consumption and heart health."

As Gilmore knows, no epidemiological study is able to establish causation, but in the absence of any plausible explanation it seems reasonable to conclude that the effect is causal. Gilmore offers no alternative explanation and the BMJ study explicitly states that his beloved 'sick quitter' hypothesis does explain the results. Gilmore doesn't mention this in his press release. Instead he promotes the risible Chief Medical Officer's report that he and his buddies in the temperance lobby oversaw.


Outright denials came from the British Heart Foundation, of all people:

“This study suggests that sticking within alcohol guidelines may actually lower your risk of some heart conditions,” says Tracy Parker, of charity the British Heart Foundation, who was not involved in the study. “But it’s important to remember that the risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh any possible benefits. These findings are certainly no reason to start drinking alcohol if you don’t already.”

In fact, the BMJ study shows that participants who drank within the old UK guidelines were 24 per cent less likely to die and 31 per cent less likely to have coronary heart disease by the time the study ended. Let's not mince words, the BHF spokeswoman is lying here.


James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK, which is merging with Alcohol Concern, combined denial with whataboutery involving exercise and food.

“There are better ways to strengthen the heart such as exercise and good diet. All things being equal – and given the increased risk of suffering other health conditions linked to any amount of alcohol consumption – if you drink within the existing guidelines it is unlikely that alcohol will either lengthen or shorten your life.”

If a 24 per cent increased risk of mortality is unlikely to shorten your life then presumably a 34 per cent increase is not much to worry about either. A 34 per cent increased risk is what heavy drinkers have, according to this study. Perhaps we should put an end to alcohol research and do something more worthwhile? (To be entirely fair, the Guardian quoted the least true part of James's statement, the full version of which you can read here.)

Rosanna O'Connor of Public Health England went full throttle with the whataboutery:

“Those who don’t drink should not consider taking up drinking to improve their heart health, but are better off stopping smoking, getting regular physical activity and eating a healthy diet.”

Aside from the fact that large numbers of (mainly older) people are unable to be physically active, O'Connor presents a false choice between moderate alcohol consumption and other ways of staying healthy. In fact, research shows that people benefit from moderate drinking even if they already exercise, eat healthily and don't smoke. In other words, if you are a physically active non-smoker with a good diet you will be healthier if you drink moderately. Being teetotal is a risky behaviour no different from having a poor diet. An evidence-based health agency would treat it as such. If Public Health England hadn't just published a pile of dogmatic neo-temperance trash and called it an alcohol review, perhaps they would have admitted the truth today.

Incidentally, the BMJ study has been reported almost everywhere with the notable exception of the BBC. The BBC's health team is usually eager to cover alcohol news. Two days ago they reported a total non-story about the 20 year old fad of drinking alcohol with energy drinks. The Beeb has been keen to write stories about moderate drinking before, such as 'Cancer risk "even from light drinking"', 'Breast cancer link to small amounts of alcohol' and 'Red wine health benefits overhyped' so you would expect them to be interested in the largest study ever conducted on the effect of alcohol on the heart.

And yet they've completely ignored it. I can't think why.

Don't forget the Spectator post.

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