Regular Bulletin readers know how I feel about the Marin Institute. They style themselves as a “watchdog” group but in reality they’re a run of the mill anti-alcohol, neo-prohibitionist group. I often accuse them of going to great lengths to distort facts or manufacture reality to further their cause, taking an ends justify the means approach to everything they do. The “charge for harm” nonsense they’re trying to foist on San Francisco is a prime example, but today witnessed an even clearer example of how far they’ll go in bending reality to their will.
The USDA has released their updated version of the Dietary Guidelines For Americans 2010, where they looked at more recent research regarding food and beverages of all kinds, updating the 2005 edition (it’s regularly updated every five years). Well, this is bad news for the anti-alcohol folks, because recent science has been revealing more and more health benefits for the moderate consumption of alcohol, and so not surprisingly, that’s what is reflected in the new guidelines. But the Marin Institute has never been one to let facts stand in their way, and so they’ve wasted no time in criticizing the report’s findings and asking their unquestioning faithful to do likewise, calling the whole thing “dangerous” and “unscientific,” despite the fact that the whole report is based on science and each study relied upon is cited in the bibliography. It’s laughable that they’d call it “unscientific” while they themselves just shout it down and spread propaganda and utterly nonfactual claims about why they don’t like its conclusions. To them, it’s only science if they agree with the results. To me, that’s far more dangerous than anything in the report.
So what does this dangerous report say? It’s Chapter 7 that tackles alcohol and it’s fairly balanced from my point of view, and probably would be for any reasonable person. It talks about both the risks of over-consumption and the benefits of moderate drinking. It’s quite cautious in making any affirmative recommendations. There were also some interesting statistics. For example, I’d often heard that about a third of adults don’t drink alcohol, but a recent survey revealed that 76% of men and 65% of women had consumed alcohol in the past year. Most compelling was the decision to change the definition of moderate drinking from a daily standard to a weekly one, and to raise the daily recommendations from 2/1 (men/women) to 4/3.
The recent release of Rethinking Drinking by the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), provides guidelines that are consistent, in part, with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, but also add additional guidance on weekly patterns of consumption. This NIAAA booklet, which is also designed to help individuals drink less if they are heavy or “at risk drinkers,” defines “low-risk” drinking as no more than 14 drinks a week for men and 7 drinks a week for women with no more than 4 drinks on any given day for men and 3 drinks a day for women (NIAAA, 2009).
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) largely agreed with this definition of moderation from the NIAAA because it implied that consumption was based on daily intake averaged over the week and also because the NIAAA guideline was generally consistent with the recommendation from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines.
Not surprisingly, this caused the Marin Institute to go apoplectic. Of course, the definition of “binge drinking” has been five drinks in a single session, which is laughingly absurd, especially so now in light of four being considered within the bounds of moderation. The five-drink-standard branded every single person who attends a five-course beer dinner a binge drinker, which is utter nonsense.
The Dietary Guidelines also asked some interesting questions about the effects of moderate drinking, and reports some findings that the anti-alcohol groups will have a hard time dismissing, and in fact any rebuttal of them is so far missing from their complaints. For example:
What is the Relationship between Alcohol Intake and Cognitive Decline with Age?
Moderate evidence suggests that compared to non-drinkers, individuals who drink moderately have a slower cognitive decline with age. Although limited, evidence suggests that heavy or binge drinking is detrimental to age-related cognitive decline.
Alcohol, when consumed in moderation, did not quicken the pace of age-related loss of cognitive function. In most studies, it was just the opposite—moderate alcohol consumption, when part of a healthy diet and physical activity program, appeared to help to keep cognitive function intact with age.
They also did a meta-study on the effects of moderate drinking on total mortality, meaning how does responsible drinking do in creating a more or less healthy lifestyle. Predictably, it was found that a majority, if not all, of the studies examined show a positive correlation between moderate drinking and living longer and being more healthy.
Total Mortality. In most Western countries where chronic diseases such as CHD, cancer, stroke and diabetes are the primary causes of death, results from large epidemiological studies consistently show that alcohol has a favorable association with total mortality especially among middle age and older men and women. A recent updated meta-analysis of all-cause mortality demonstrated an inverse association between moderate drinking and total mortality (Di Castelnuovo, 2006). The relative risk of all-cause mortality associated with moderate drinking was approximately 0.80. The J-shaped curve, with the lowest mortality risk for men and women at the average level of one to two drinks per day, is likely due to the protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption on CHD, diabetes and ischemic stroke as summarized in this chapter.
In other words, you’ll be healthier if you have one or two beers a day. But woe be to any brewery that might think to actually suggest that to a potential customer. That’s where the neo-prohibitionists are most worried. In the conclusion to their comments to the new dietary guidelines, the Marin Institute are very “concerned.” Here are some excerpts of their worrying, and my open letter response as to why they’re on the train to loony town.
There is no public health organization that recommends starting to drink alcohol for abstainers, or drinking more alcohol for current drinkers, as either a preventive behavior to address specific medical problems, or as a population-level primary prevention strategy.
Perhaps not, but there should be. The only reason there isn’t, is because organizations like the Marin Institute would treat such a recommendation as a declaration of war. Even though the facts indicate that moderate drinking is healthier than abstaining, nobody would dare to state the obvious conclusion to draw from that just because of how they’d react, in other words fear is the reason, not common sense.
Indeed, federal, state, local and community public health agencies, including Marin Institute, work tirelessly to address the tremendous physical, social, and economic harm caused by alcohol. Yet the Report sounds as if drinking alcohol is not only a suggested therapeutic option to discuss with one’s doctor, but also a general recommendation for all Americans to consider as part of an overall wellness plan.
It “sounds as if drinking alcohol is a therapeutic option” because it is. Alcohol does not cause the harm, too much alcohol may cause harm, but moderate consumption is beneficial. You just continuing to say the opposite of what’s true doesn’t make it any less so.
The Committee must be aware that the Report’s messages about alcohol consumption will be misinterpreted by the powerful corporations and trade organizations that sell and promote alcoholic beverages. The alcohol industry has a long history of exploiting the Dietary Guidelines for their benefit, and the suggestions contained in the Report lend themselves to further misuse. We are especially concerned that despite the Report’s caveats, the industry will use the new recommendations to promote alcohol consumption and increased consumption.
Don’t worry, you’re safe. Maybe you should relax and enjoy a frosty beverage; perhaps I could suggest a beer? You must think the alcohol companies are pretty stupid, despite how shrewd you usually paint them. With you “watchdogging” them, there’s no way any alcohol company could launch a campaign suggesting people start drinking or drinking more, even though the evidence points to the fact that it wouldn’t be a bad idea. At any rate, thanks to your predecessors after prohibition, the advertising guidelines already expressly forbid health claims, so as usual you’re worrying about nothing.
We also ask that the Committee revise the Report and subsequent Guidelines to send a much more cautionary, evidence-based message regarding alcohol consumption to the public. Finally, we recommend that the new Guidelines maintain the formulation of 2/1 per-day consumption of alcohol. We urge you to err on the side of caution when recommending safe alcohol consumption levels and behaviors to improve health and prevent harm.
Err on the side of caution? Let’s see, they reviewed the science and came to a conclusion you didn’t like. That’s not an error or not being cautious, it’s simply letting facts dictate what makes sense in terms of a policy of what’s best for the average person.
But your whole posturing, tantrum-filled press release and comments speak volumes about your real intentions. While an average person might look at those findings and think to themselves, “great, it’s good to be informed and know how eating and drinking certain things will affect me. Now I can make an informed decision on how to live my life.” But you look at that and instead cry, “I don’t like those finding, they must be wrong. There’s science behind it, but I don’t like the conclusions so the science must be wrong. I don’t like the recommendations, so they must be “dangerous.”
I know it’s nearly impossible for the Marin Institute or any similar organization to have an open mind and be reasonable about these sorts of things. Fanaticism is rarely compatible with reason or common sense. But I continue to marvel at how any organization who never misses an opportunity to call an alcohol company on not being truthful can themselves be so fast and loose with the truth. Lying to keep someone else truthful (or at least for a cause you believe in) seems completely immoral, or at least amoral, to me. If the facts are contrary to your point of view, maybe it’s your point of view that’s wrong? Maybe it’s time to question your assumptions? I know that’s not going to happen, but not letting the facts get in your way by just ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist or are wrong isn’t going to fool anybody except the people who you’ve hoodwinked already. And maybe that’s their point in the end, maybe it’s just about keeping the faithful faithful by telling them what they want to hear and appearing to fight their absurd fight. But I sure wish they’d let the facts get in their way.