Is that drink worth having for you?

Alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic, which may be why news of any kind about alcohol seems to have found a receptive audience in recent years. In 2022, an episode of the “Huberman Lab” podcast dedicated to elaborating on the various risks of alcohol to the body and brain was one of the most popular programs of that year. Non-alcoholic spirits have gained such popularity that they have begun to form the basis for entire nightlife guides; and more and more people report consuming cannabis rather than alcohol on a daily basis.

Some governments are responding to the new research by reviewing their messaging. Last year, Ireland became the first country to pass legislation requiring a cancer warning on all alcohol products sold there, similar to those found on cigarettes: 'There is a direct link between alcohol and deadly cancers' , we read in the text. And in Canada the government revised its alcohol guidelines, announcing: “We now know that even a small amount of alcohol can be harmful to your health.” The guidelines define one to two drinks per week as “low risk” and three to six drinks as “moderate risk.” (Previously the guidelines suggested that women limit themselves to no more than two standard drinks most days and that men set that limit at three.)

No amount of alcohol is good for you: that much is clear. But one might reasonably ask: how bad is it? The information we receive about health risks often overlooks details of the actual risk a person faces, as if these are not details worth knowing. These days, when I think about drinks with dinner, I find myself wondering how much to adapt my behavior in light of this new research. Over the years, we have been told that many things are very good or very bad for us: drinking coffee, running, running barefoot, restricting calories, eating all proteins, eating all carbohydrates. The conversation in my head goes something like this: “Should I be worried? Clearly, to some extent, yes. But how much, exactly?”

Tim Stockwell, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, is one of the people most responsible for our cultural correction on alcohol, a feat all the more notable because he was convinced of its health benefits. Stockwell believed so firmly in the validity of moderate drinking that he wrote, in a commentary in Australia's leading medical journal in 2000, that skeptics on that topic could reasonably be lumped into the same category as “doubters of manned lunar missions and members of the Flat “. Earth Society.

Not long after, Stockwell received a phone call from Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who told him she had her doubts about the research that Stockwell considered so good. Fillmore was concerned about possible confounding variables in the studies: For starters, they included former drinkers in the “teetotal” category, which meant they didn't take into account the possibility that some people had stopped drinking because of illness. Moderate drinkers appeared healthy by comparison, creating the illusion that moderate amounts of alcohol were beneficial.

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