I saw this tweet earlier today from my neighbors at the Marin Institute — now Alcohol Justice:
#Alcohol is the third-leading #preventable cause of death in the U.S. Fact sheets – #free to download… http://bit.ly/r8KoO5
First of all, somebody at Alcohol Justice (AJ) doesn’t quite understand the hashtag, using it on alcohol, preventable and free!
But Twitter etiquette aside, that statement is false, and they probably know that, making it a lie, to my way of thinking. But saying it that way makes it sound scarier, and AJ is all about propaganda these days as IMHO they’ve become more and more neo-prohibitionist since becoming the self-appointed sheriff, and changing their name.
That statement about alcohol being the “third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.” comes from the CDC. It’s from a 2001 study entitled “Alcohol-Attributable Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost — United States, 2001,” and published in 2004. The very first words of the summary give you the spin, as it begins “Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.” That’s right, it’s not alcohol, but excessive alcohol. Those of you drinking in moderation and responsibly — that is, the vast majority of adult drinkers — can breathe a sigh a relief. They weren’t talking about you. But they did materially change the “facts” to suit their needs and agenda. Put less charitably, they lied, at least in my opinion. Here’s the first few sentences:
Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States and is associated with multiple adverse health consequences, including liver cirrhosis, various cancers, unintentional injuries, and violence. To analyze alcohol-related health impacts, CDC estimated the number of alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) and years of potential life lost (YPLLs) in the United States during 2001.
There’s a table at the bottom that reiterates that they’re taking about “the harmful effects of excessive alcohol use.” That table then lists all sorts of diseases, many of which may be related to alcohol, but many or most of which are only marginally associated. These sorts of reports have been discredited before, because they include a disease that excessive alcohol use may make worse, but which won’t cause the disease all on its own. Other factors are always involved. More generally, these are estimates that take a lot of liberties in their calculations. They are not hard numbers by any stretch.
The second report that AJ attributes to this statement is another study, this one also from 2004 in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. In that article, Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000, they found that heart disease, tumors and strokes were the three leading causes of death for Americans. You can see from the numbers that those statistics were relatively precise.
But now look at the next chart, where alcohol consumption is listed as the third highest among what they term “actual causes of death.” Those are obvious estimates, and based on how round the numbers are, probably more like guesses. They come from several studies conducted by interview, some by phone, in both the U.S. and Australia that were aggregated together. So at least a half-dozen studies using different methodologies, questions and sample sizes were lumped together to create their findings. And if you review the study’s limitations near the bottom at the “Comments” section you’ll see that there were many factors, such as genetics and cholesterol levels, that were simply not considered, further clouding the results.
But something else is apparent, too. Even if we accept those guesses (and you shouldn’t) tobacco and overeating/not exercising account for nearly 10 times the deaths that are attributed to alcohol. Those first two account for 34.7%, over a third, while alcohol is 3.5%. And from 1990 to 2000, alcohol actually went down 1.5%, from 100,000 estimated deaths to 85,000.
And while any death is regrettable and a tragedy, especially to their loved ones, roughly 2,437,163 die every year in America. Every one of us will one day become a part of that statistic. The current CDC estimates are that the most likely reasons for our demise will be heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, accidents (unintentional injuries), Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, nephritis (kidney trouble), nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (different kidney diseases) and suicide. Some of those diseases may be exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption, but these, and many other diseases, will be held at bay by moderate alcohol drinking and will also most likely result in our living longer than both teetotalers or excessive drinkers.
Responsible alcohol consumption will also enhance our lives in ways that reduce stress and make our lives more enjoyable. Such positive associations and outcomes are never included in these types of studies, however. Any harm to individuals, often of their own making, is never balanced by the enhancement to our life experience that responsible drinking brings to a majority of Americans. When you go looking for harm, that’s all you will find. But when you set about to twist even these questionable studies to make them seem far worse than even they represent, that’s shameful propaganda and does little to actually address the real problems that some individuals do have with drinking.