Prepared Foods December 6, 2004 enewsletter

The occasional tipple may not be so healthful says a University of Victoria researcher, who believes studies showing the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are overblown by the media and data could be flawed.

Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addiction Research, is a principal investigator in an international study taking a second look at research which has told a happily receptive public that a few glasses of wine or beer a day is good for health and well-being.

Results of the study-of-the-studies are being kept under wraps until they are published next year, but the trend is obvious.

"We do not think the benefits are all they are cracked up to be,'' Stockwell said.

Headlines proclaiming that drinking reduces heart attacks or that beer and wine produce numerous health benefits distort reality, said Stockwell, who readily admits he is partial to the odd glass of wine.

"I would love it if it had been doing me good all these years, but I'm also looking at the science,'' he said.

One problem is that most studies include in the abstainers category ex-drinkers who quit because of health problems.

The new study rearranges data so only lifelong abstainers are in the non-drinking category.

Headlines also do not emphasize that the maximum benefit from alcohol comes at one or two drinks a day for men and half to one drink a day for women over 45 years old, Stockwell said.

"The general message is just that drinking is good for you,'' he said.

News media tend to play up such studies because they give people comfort about their own alcohol use, Stockwell said.

"People are fascinated by the use of their own drug and would rather hear good things,'' he said.

"Journalists buy into that. It wouldn't sell newspapers to show diseased livers and rotting guts.''

There is also a "more sinister'' explanation about why alcohol-is-good-for-you stories get such good play, Stockwell said.

"A lot of the research into the benefits is being funded by the alcohol industry.''

That means highly paid researchers will look at an issue, and a positive spin is then put on a slick news release, he said. "So the information is filtered and biased, then the stories reflect what publishers and journalists think people want to read,'' Stockwell said.

In reality, at least 40 causes of death are linked to alcohol, ranging from crashes, suicide and poisoning to gastritis and various sorts of cancer, he said.

"With something like breast cancer, there is a small increased risk with every drink per day,'' he said.

However, Greg D'Avignon, vice president of Brewers of Canada, said more than 30 years worth of well-documented research shows alcohol is a healthy beverage when used in moderation.

"To suggest there are not health benefits is just false and goes against well-established thinking in the medical community,'' he said.

The Royal College of Physicians has said alcohol contributes significantly to reducing heart disease. The Canada Food Guide says moderate consumption of alcohol can contribute to a healthy lifestyle. In addition, there are studies showing alcohol helps prevent late onset diabetes, osteoporosis and some dementia, D'Avignon said.

Most studies recommend one to three drinks a day for men and one or two drinks a day for women, he said.

The only recent study about the benefits of beer was undertaken because of a misconception that beer is excessively high in calories whereas one bottle of beer contains only about 100 calories -- or less than a handful of peanuts, D'Avignon said.

The B.C. Wine Institute also believes in the benefits of wine, and a brochure directs readers to articles and studies on the benefit of "moderate and responsible consumption of wine.''

It leads with a quote from Harvey Finkel, clinical professor of medicine at Boston University Medical Centre.

"For the vast majority, moderate consumption of alcohol, particularly wine, is beneficial. It is associated with improved health and longevity,'' it says.