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The orthodox view is that moderate alcohol consumption is of benefit to health. A New Zealand researcher Rod Jackson has questioned this: saying that it may not (when taken overall) be of any benefit. You can read an interview about this with Rod Jackson on Radio National’s (Australia’s public broadcasting service) Health Report.
Rod Jackson’s problem with the orthodox view on alcohol and health is the kind of evidence this view is based on. This is a little technical but here goes. The orthodoxy is based on observational studies not randomised controlled trials. Observational studies are where we watch what people do and see what happens to them. Randomised controlled trials are where people are put into carefully matched groups and there is one diffrence between the groups (usually one takes a drug and one doesn’t) and then what happens in the different groups are compared.
Randomised controlled trials are very useful where one thing is being examined – for instance taking a drug. To control for all the factors in a complex situation (like what people eat, how much, of what, in what quantities and so on) is very difficult. And so randomised controlled trials aren’t so suitable for studying these kinds of complicated things.
This is where observational studies come in. We look at what people eat (or in this case drink) and we compare what happens to the people who drink different amounts. The problems is that people do some many other things that the relationship may not be real. In this case non-drinkers may do lots of different things to drinkers. And moderate drinkers may be quite different to heavy drinkers. They may be moderate in all sorts of ways that benefit their health. Instead of the moderate alcohol intake benefiting their health it may be that it’s being moderate in lots of ways is benefiting their health and the alcohol isn’t doing much at all.
There is one final complication – the social aspect of drinking. In countries where heavier drinking is acceptable there are other health consequences: the road toll not being the least of them.
Once the nature of the evidence is looked at and the social consequences are factored in Rod Jackson concludes that there is probably no overall benefit to health in alcohol consumption.
This is a view certainly worth considering. The reference for Rod Jackson’s article is below.
Jackson R et al. Alcohol and ischaemic heart disease: probably no free lunch. The Lancet December, 2005;366:1911-1912