In another missive from the increasingly well-named Professor David Nutt, today in the UK Guardian he announed that There is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption and then proceeded to claim that the reasons he believes that “the idea that drinking small amounts of alcohol will do you no harm is a myth” are fourfold:
- Alcohol is a toxin that kills cells.
- Although most people do not become addicted to alcohol on their first drink, a small proportion do.
- The supposed cardiovascular benefits of a low level of alcohol intake in some middle-aged men cannot be taken as proof that alcohol is beneficial.
- For all other diseases associated with alcohol there is no evidence of any benefit of low alcohol intake.
He elaborates slightly more on each of these, though not much more, and then follows up those grand sweeping pronouncements with the following:
“Hopefully these observations will help bring some honesty to the debate about alcohol.”
That’s one of those comically-spit-out-your-drink sort of statements, because what he just said was nowhere near honest. It would almost be funny except that mainstream media in Great Britain keep giving him a bully pulpit to proselytize from and people seem genuinely uncritical of what he has to say, which is even more baffling. Some of the comments to the Guardian article from supporters are downright scary, as they seem to believe he has science and evidence to support his wackadoodle claims. He doesn’t. Last year, when he proclaimed, to equal fanfare, that beer is more dangerous than heroin, his scientific evidence consisted of gathering together a group of like-minded individuals (that is people already predisposed against alcohol), many of whom were members of the made-up organization he started after the UK government sacked him — The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs — and they sat together in a room one weekend and assigned arbitrary numbers for the amount of harm to society for various drugs based on their life experience, no actual data necessary. That’s what passes for science, and that they got the previously respected Lancet to publish it is downright bewildering.
Just a few thoughts about what’s wrong with every one of his four “proofs,” off the top of my head. At least I’m admitting I’m not researching these.
1. Sure, 100% rubbing alcohol will kill you. It’s 200 proof. Most chemical substances, compounds, etc. will kill you in sufficient doses. Most of the medicines we use to treat diseases will kill you if the dose is too high. That’s why they have warning labels and are doled out by doctors and pharmacists with specific instructions of how many, and when to start and stop taking them. For alcohol, we have the TTB and various state agencies to perform that role. Even things that are good for us become bad for us in higher doses — red meat, salt, vitamins, bacon (well, maybe not bacon). If we got rid of everything in the world with the potential to kill us, we’d be left with pretty much nothing.
2. Since Nutt claims we can’t predict who will become addicted to alcohol with the very first taste, then he suggests “any exposure to alcohol runs the risk of producing addiction in some users.” And that differs from everything else how? Assuming his anecdotal “evidence” that such immediate addiction is even possible — which seems unlikely at best — it’s hardly a basis for public policy. Not everybody reacted well to penicillin when it was introduced; should we have left all those people with diseases who could be cured by penicillin die just because less than 1% had an adverse reaction to it? This is just a post hoc fallacy of the worst kind.
3. Saying that the cardiovascular benefits are not proof ignores the many, many, many other studies that show positive health benefits for a myriad range of health concerns. The big enchilada, of course, is the numerous studies that show that total mortality is improved by the moderate consumption of alcohol; that is you’ll most likely live longer if you drink moderately than if you either don’t drink at all or drink too much. And a recent study seems to suggest that given a choice, drinking too much instead of abstaining will still lead to a better result. The FDA in its most recent dietary guidelines acknowledges this fact, yet Nutt completely ignores it and every other study that doesn’t fit his world view. Singling out one study to bash — his straw man — is about as dishonest a way to “bring some honesty to the debate” as I can imagine.
4. He concludes by just dismissing the vast body of medical and health studies that do in fact conclude there are health benefits to the moderate consumption of alcohol. He does this apparently by simply pretending they don’t exist, saying “there is no evidence of any benefit of low alcohol intake.” But just saying there are no benefits in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence is not, as his supporters seem to believe, scientific proof of any kind. It’s just the opposite, in fact.
I’m all for an honest debate about the positives and negatives surrounding alcohol, but if this is what passes for “honesty,” I think I’ll have to wait a little longer for that conversation.