A new study by Canadian researchers not only sheds corrective light on previous studies on the effects of alcohol — it also pierces through decades of folklore and corporate messaging on the subject.
“It’s often been thought that wine is something special, that alcohol in wine somehow has magic properties,” lead researcher Tim Stockwell told the Washington Post. “It was just a publicity coup for the wine industry three decades ago. The role of alcohol in wine as protective is now disputed, and the evidence doesn’t hold up.”
According to peer-reviewed study by Stockwell (a psychology professor and former director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research) and his colleagues, there were “no significant reductions in risk of all-cause mortality” for people who engage in moderate drinking compared to heavy drinkers or teetotalers. The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed the findings in 107 prior studies of the drinking habits of a collective 4.8 million people.
“We concluded these were bad studies,” Stockwell said. “There wasn’t a single perfect study in there. They were open to bias in so many ways.”
The idea that wine has particular health benefits when consumed in moderation dates back to findings by French epidemiologists that were dubbed “the French paradox.” As a report by Reuters University’s Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research recounted:
The concept was initially thought to be explained by French people’s consumption of red wine, which contains resveratrol, a compound believed to have anti-hypertensive effects and potential protective properties because of the ways it relaxes blood vessels.
But to get the 1 gram per day of resveratrol that some research suggests would result in such health benefits, a person would need to consume about 500 to 2,700 liters of red wine, or 800 kilograms of red grapes, or 2,900 kilograms of dark chocolate — massive amounts that would not be considered healthy, or even possible.
Even as further research suggested that wine was less linked to cardiovascular health than overall lifestyle and socioeconomic factors, the institute noted that “the global wine industry, worth $14 billion in 2009, continues to grow. In 2018, average annual consumption per person was about 3 gallons.”
In the United States, researcher Raymond Pearl — a pioneer in biogerontology — published research in 1924 that he claimed showed a health advantage for moderate drinkers using a “J-shaped curve.” According to a University of Minnesota piece on Pearl:
In the end, Pearl concluded that heavy drinking had a deleterious effect on mortality and longevity, but, with “an equivalent precision,” he claimed there was no such effect of moderate drinking. “Instead the mortality among moderate drinkers is generally the same as among total abstainers, or less, and the average longevity is greater”. “The expectation of life of the moderate drinkers, whether male or female, is higher at all ages than the expectation of life of abstainers. Certainly [there is] no evidence that the expectation of life from age 30 on is in any degree impaired by the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, as defined in this book.”
But according to Stockwell’s team, past studies into moderate drinking also included former drinkers — people who gave up drinking because of health issues — as “abstainers,” skewing the findings.
“When you compare this unhealthy group to those who go on drinking, it makes the current drinkers look more healthy and like they have lower mortality,” he told the New York Times.
Pearl’s findings were accepted to the point that on the day Stockwell’s teams findings were published, the Harvard School of Public Health website still read:
Moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, and probably protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Heavy drinking is a major cause of preventable death in most countries. In the U.S., alcohol is implicated in about half of fatal traffic accidents. Heavy drinking can damage the liver and heart, harm an unborn child, increase the chances of developing breast and some other cancers, contribute to depression and violence, and interfere with relationships.
Further studies paid for by alcohol makers reinforced that perception; according to a separate 2020 report published by University of York researchers, industry-funded research increased by 56 percent since 2009; at least 13,000 studies associated with alcohol effects on health received “direct or indirect” funding from the alcohol industry.
In February 2023, researchers from York published a separate paper analyzing email correspondence between alcohol industry figures and officials with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) between 2013 and 2020:
NIAAA leaders provided industry with extensive information about scientific and policy developments. Discussions were facilitated by the willingness of NIAAA leaders to meet with industry and have other informal contacts, as well as NIAAA leadership presence at industry-sponsored and other events. Key industry actors asked NIAAA leaders for help on science and policy issues. At times, NIAAA leaders heavily criticized public health research and researchers in correspondence with industry.
“The depth of the relationships between NIAAA senior leaders and key alcohol industry contacts uncovered here is disturbing,” York health professr Jim McCambridge said in a statement. “The study findings provide examples of alcohol public health science being opposed rather than championed by NIAAA leaders, at least in their direct communications with industry.”