Tuesday 12 December 2017

Colette Fitzpatrick: Of course booze is a health risk - but can't we make a sensible call on it?

A glass of wine
A glass of wine

Lies, damn lies and statistics. But it seems like you could easily substitute 'statistics' for 'studies.'

Every other day there's another study contradicting a previous one. Then there's another one to disprove that one, making you wonder which one, if any, is true.

This week research published in the British Medical Journal found that 'light drinking', defined as up to one standard drink a day for women and two drinks for men, was linked to only a minimal increase in risk of 'all cancers'.

But a daily glass of wine raised the specific chances of breast cancer for women significantly - whether or not they smoked, since smoking is not linked to breast cancer.

The study defined one standard drink as one sixth of a bottle of wine.


Hold on - haven't we already been told that an occasional glass of wine is good for you? A substance found in red wine, resveratrol, was said to have health benefits including preventing cancer.

And a study from the University of Copenhagen found women who drink an average of a bottle of wine a month during pregnancy have children who are better adjusted both emotionally and behaviourally than those who abstain.

It seems like there are reasons why studies often seem to contradict each other.

The obvious problem is that studies vary in size and quality.

Some are well-designed and others aren't. But most media reports give all of them the same status.

You'd also have to think that there must be a level of wishful thinking with how people absorb such research.

People naturally want to believe in the value of new treatments or cures, sometimes so much so that their critical faculties are reduced.

The oncologist Prof John Crown spoke this week about this latest study and admitted it was a complex issue.

Not drinking at all, he said, is not going to guarantee that a woman won't get breast cancer.

Lots of women who have never drunk alcohol in their lives develop the disease, therefore not drinking does not give you a guarantee that you will be healthy.

Prof Crown said that the average woman's risk of getting breast cancer is between one-in-eight and one-in-nine. This study seems to suggest that drinking would increase those odds to one-in-seven.

When it comes to booze, the advice seems to be that no amount of alcohol is safe.

No doubt that's true, in a strictly theoretical sense, but it's also theoretically correct that you can't venture down the stairs in the morning without risking an accident. That doesn't deter us from getting up in the morning.

Surely we should make sensible, balanced judgements about what poses an unacceptable degree of risk?

If our lives were to be governed by fear of theoretical harm, we would never get out of bed.

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