Science basis of alcohol guidelines, not populism

Alcohol is a hazardous product, Jennie Connor writes. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Alcohol is a hazardous product, Jennie Connor writes. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Jennie Connor takes issue with a recent article on alcohol policies.

Virginia Nicholls is a communications expert and works for the alcohol industries in Aotearoa as their spokeswoman.

Her opinion article (24.8.23) is a communication in the interests of the alcohol industries here and internationally. She offers up standard industry tactics, providing bold, unsubstantiated and discredited assertions. It is a populist communication, in the sense that it is saying what many people want to hear. She references the important-sounding International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research to support her case, although it is well known in alcohol research and policy circles to be closely aligned with the alcohol industry.

Missing from her condemnation of the body of epidemiological research about the harm from alcohol that underpins the development of guidelines for the public is the identity of the "groundbreaking" research she is referring to, or the researchers involved.

It appears Ms Nicholls may be referring to the development of the Canadian Guidelines, rather a specific piece of research, when she says, "a new study". The development of guidelines considers and critically appraises all of the available relevant research and focuses on how reliable each of the studies is likely to be. Only those that meet standards of scientific validity are included. It is not a process that one would expect a communications expert to have the training to understand in any detail, but the implication of incompetence or bias in the process is a big one. The "cherry-picking" of studies is especially ludicrous in this setting of guidelines development.

Epidemiology has at its heart a focus on cause-and-effect relationships, and so the consideration of alternative explanations for the observed findings of any study is a big part of it. These ideas can be tested and methods improved. In many areas of health research, associations that have been held to be true in the past are now in doubt due to new techniques and understanding the nature of the flaws in the older studies. There has been major progress in recent years in understanding the shortcomings of the cohort studies that support ideas about "moderate" drinking being good for health, or at least not harmful, and also better studies about the contribution of alcohol to cancers, even when drinking is at levels within our current guidelines.

Ms Nicholls presents the idea that the "Canadian research" was looking to challenge the J-shaped curve, as if this has not happened before, when there is already a substantial scientific literature on this topic going back 20 years or more. The J-shaped curve is shorthand for the (biologically unlikely) idea that the healthiest dose of alcohol is not zero, but one or two drinks a day. The industry uses this to argue that there is no reason for anyone to be a non-drinker but, at the same time, any drinking in a harmful way is your individual choice.

Alcohol is a hazardous product, and that is why the need to regulate it is widely acceptable.

However, we do not regulate it as we would an environmental contaminant where the acceptable standard might be under one in a million risk of dying, or other voluntary exposures, such as skiing, where it might be one in 1000.

Even if everyone’s drinking was reduced to the level of New Zealand guidelines, we would still be looking at a lifetime risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition of about one in 100.

—  Jennie Connor is professor emeritus, preventive and social medicine, at the University of Otago.