Recently, an advisory committee of 20 nationally recognized scientific experts recommended changing federal dietary guidelines on alcohol consumption, with limits for men who drink lowered from two drinks per day to one drink per day. The recommendations are driven by solid evidence. Even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with significant health risks, and the experts’ report explains why.
These experts are not ideologues. Indeed, they were all appointed by the Trump administration. Nevertheless, the alcohol industry and its allies have attempted to caricature the committee members as “nanny-state bureaucrats.” And with the help of a lobbying budget in excess of $27 million, Big Alcohol has enlisted the support of congressional representatives in second-guessing the committee’s recommendations.
Federal officials should stand their ground and incorporate the experts’ recommendations into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge — the legally prescribed basis for the dietary guidelines — makes crystal clear that the recommendations reflect the best science available today.
U.S. researchers now estimate that drinking alcohol is the third most significant cause of cancer that is within a person’s control, behind smoking and obesity. Each year, alcohol consumption causes more cancer deaths than exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In fact, drinking alcohol increases the risk of at least six cancer types.
The cancer risk increases with heavier levels of consumption, but an established and growing body of research shows that even “light” alcohol consumption — less than one drink per day — also causes cancer, with the incidence of cancers of the breast, oral cavity, pharynx, and esophagus, among others, increasing significantly among light drinkers. With the exception of breast cancer, the types of cancer known to be caused by drinking alcohol – stomach, esophageal, head and neck, colorectal, and liver – are much more common in men, pointing to the need for men, in particular, to cut back.
By contrast, earlier claims that moderate drinking confers health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, have not aged well. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, now states on its website: “While some studies have found improved health outcomes among moderate drinkers, it’s impossible to conclude whether these improved outcomes are due to moderate alcohol consumption or other differences in behaviors or genetics between people who drink moderately and people who don’t.” The availability of large prospective cohort studies and the advent of whole-genome sequencing technology has allowed researchers to bypass some of the confounding factors that plagued earlier studies, and the results of this “genetic epidemiology” have cast further doubt on the purported protective effects of moderate drinking.
All of this is to say that the evidence in support of moderate alcohol consumption improving cardiovascular health is highly suspect, whereas the scientific evidence linking alcohol consumption to cancer is well-established and growing. Respected cancer organizations, including the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society, advise not drinking alcohol to reduce cancer risk. The federal dietary guidelines should also advise consumers that drinking alcohol does not improve health, and if consumers do drink, urge them to drink as little as possible.
Will the modest change proposed for the Dietary Guidelines have a significant impact? Millions of men in the U.S. now regularly drink in excess of the two-drink limit, first prescribed in the 1990 guidelines. But the guidelines do matter. They are required by law to be promoted by all federal government food and nutrition programs and policies, and they are often used by private and nonprofit organizations, too.
For decades, alcohol has been depicted as part of a healthy diet, with any ill effects limited to binge drinkers and alcoholics. This portrayal has succeeded so well that most consumers in the United States remain unaware of the link between alcohol use and cancer; the American Institute for Cancer Research’s recent survey showed that less than half of U.S. consumers identify alcohol as a cancer risk factor. For the sake of our collective health, that needs to change. The Dietary Guidelines can help, so long as they are driven by science, and not corporate influence.
Thomas Gremillion is the director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America. Nigel Brockton, Ph.D., is the vice president of Research at the American Institute for Cancer Research.