It's your genes, not the wine

A new international study is pouring cold water on suggestions non-drinkers might enjoy even greater health benefits if they tried a few glasses of red wine.

The harmful effects of alcohol on conditions such as liver cirrhosis, injuries and many cancers have been firmly established.

But scientific debate has continued about whether light to moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

In 1991, the US news programme 60 Minutes aired a broadcast on the so-called ''French paradox''- that French people ate a high-fat and dairy-fat diet yet had relatively low occurrence of cardiovascular disease.

Bordeaux scientist Serge Renaud suggested on the programme that the moderate consumption of red wine was a risk-reducing factor for the French, given worse heart health outcomes for British and Americans, who also had a high-fat diet.

Prof Jennie Connor, of the University of Otago preventive and social medicine department, and a medical spokeswoman for Alcohol Action New Zealand Ltd, said many studies had showed a benefit of light drinking, compared with no drinking.

But this was highly disputed because the design of the studies meant other explanations for the findings could not be ruled out.

Breakthrough research published this week in the British Medical Journal suggested the sceptics were right, she said in a statement.

With a quarter of a million participants, this study showed that individuals of European descent with a genetic predisposition to consume less alcohol had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and ischaemic stroke, and lower levels of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Prof Connor said people with the genetic variant drank less or no alcohol.

''They were not otherwise different from the general population, but had lower blood pressure, were slimmer and had lower risk of both coronary heart disease and the most common form of stroke,'' she said.

The study showed that reducing alcohol consumption, even for light to moderate drinkers, was ''likely to be beneficial for cardiovascular health'', she said.

''This is a major challenge to the idea that light to moderate alcohol consumption is good for your heart, and supports the contention that the previous studies have been flawed,'' she said.

Dick Bunton, a Dunedin cardiothoracic surgeon and a director at award-winning Rockburn Wines in Central Otago, said he had not yet read the latest study.

But he would not recommend even light drinking of wine as a therapeutic health benefit for a non-drinker.

Some previous studies had suggested some health benefit in light to moderate wine consumption, he said.

But great care needed to be taken in assessing overall alcohol-related health risks, not only to the heart, but also to other organs, including the liver.

He acknowledged that research which suggested health benefits of some wine consumption also needed to be interpreted in light of the knowledge that some wine drinkers were also more likely to be non-smokers and to undertake regular physical exercise.

Prof Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre at Otago University's Christchurch campus, said the British study was ''an important turning point in the discussion of benefits of drinking for physical health''.

For a long time the supposed benefits of drinking had been promoted by the industry, the media and some health professionals.

But previously doubtful claims had now been shown to be ''very unlikely indeed''.

He said consuming a few glasses of wine could well be ''good for the soul'' but consuming more than a bottle of wine a week was likely to be somewhat harmful to the body.

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