Is wine bad for you?


So says a study released by The Lancet last week. Or to quote the study directly:

“By evaluating all associated relative risks for alcohol use, we found that consuming zero standard drinks daily minimises the overall risk to health.”

So there you have it. Settled science. No more ‘moderate consumption’. No more ‘a glass of red a night.’ No ‘French Paradox’. The safest level of consumption is zero.

I’m neither a scientist nor a statistician, so I won’t attempt to offer any disqualifying opinions. I won’t discuss how or why the study might have been flawed. I don’t really know of any contrary studies claiming the opposite findings. In fact, I believe that the study is largely accurate. I’m sure that zero consumption is safer than minimal consumption, which is safer than moderate consumption, which is safer that heavy consumption.

But, here’s the thing. The study doesn’t really say that alcohol is bad for you. It says that any alcohol consumption is unsafe, when compared to no alcohol consumption. That’s probably true.

But, so what?

There are any number of behaviors that are unsafe on their face. Skydiving. Scuba diving. Race car driving. Tightrope walking. Skiing. Cliff diving. Many of us perform those activities because…well, I’m not really sure why. But we assess the risk, learn, train, practice and go forward.

There are also any number of activities that are perhaps situationally unsafe. Driving. Especially in bad weather. Eating. Especially donuts. Playing sports. Especially if you are untrained and in poor physical condition. I’ll bet that it safer to stay home eating fruits and vegetables while watching a tennis match than it is to drive in the rain, eat at Krispy Kreme and play racquetball 3 times a year. But, still we do those things for various reasons.

We are constantly making decisions regarding our personal safety and often practicing behaviors that are less safe than…not. Sometimes we consider our behaviors beforehand and adjust to make said behaviors safer. Other times, its damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! (which is a pretty unsafe point of view).

Sometimes our unsafe practices hurt us and/or others. What should we do about that?  Ban all unsafe practices? No ladders or bathtubs! Certainly no guns or running with scissors (but, scissors don’t put out eyes, people put out eyes.) Lacrosse is probably unsafe. Certainly biking. Ban them? How about mowing the lawn? Could we please ban that, and lawns all together?

So, WTF! Is drinking alcohol more or less safe than cutting the lawn?

My point is not to ridicule or diminish the findings of the study, but rather, offer some perspective. We can, and sometimes do, take precautions to maximize our safety when performing less than completely safe behaviors. We make choices as to which behaviors are unacceptably unsafe, reasonably unsafe or marginally unsafe and proceed accordingly. Should wine (and other alcoholic beverage) consumption be immune from such considerations? Why? Isn’t that why we restrict the drinking age? Not necessarily because alcohol consumption is less safe when you’re 20, but because your judgement is less sound as to whether and how much you should drink at all.

Discussing the risk factors regarding alcoholic and alcohol consumption is a positive step, both for individuals and society at large. We don’t do a very good job of taking the risks of alcohol consumption seriously, until someone gets seriously hurt. Then we point fingers and blame…someone. Do we ever blame the wine itself? Perhaps studies like this, in blaming alcohol as well as behaviors, will cause individuals to do a better job of weighing the risk factors, which will then, perhaps, mitigate some of the risk.