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Scientists say health benefits from alcohol may be greatly exaggerated

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Is drinking wine better for you than eating broccoli? Scientists say probably not. (iStock)

You may want to put down that glass of wine or pint of beer.

Despite claims in recent years that a glass of red wine could reduce chances of getting heart disease, new research is discovering that the information may be faulty.

Scientists are now saying that many of the studies touting alcohol’s benefits were actually subsidized by alcohol companies, reports Wired. The real science behind these so-called benefits may have been grossly exaggerated and may have lead to the systemic burying of a serious risk of imbibing too much alcohol-- cancer. 

Research conducted in 2014 by Boston University professor Curt Ellison led to the declaration that the consumption of moderate amounts of red wine could help in the fight against heart disease. The study was widely cited and heralded by wine industry insiders. But Ellison’s research was supported by “unrestricted educational donations” from the liquor industry, according to Addiction magazine. 

Secondly, muddled relationships between the academic community and alcohol industry trade groups have raised red flags among scientists taking a second look at research touting alcohol's supposed benefits. For example,  Samir Zakhari, a former director at the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (the National Institutes of Health’s alcohol research division) went to work for the Distilled Spirits Council-- one of the industry's biggest lobbying groups-- after leaving NIH. 

The science behind much of the research is also allegedly flawed. That’s because some studies didn’t account for subjects classified as “sick quitters," a study group consisting of nondrinkers who were either too ill to consume the alcohol or, as in some cases, former alcoholics.

There’s also a semantics issue, says Wired.  Ellison and other scientists do acknowledge the connection between “heavy” drinking and cancer but there’s no consensus on what constitutes “heavy” consumption. An attempt to define it in studies where participants have different body sizes, metabolisms and socioeconomic backgrounds is problematic.

Further obscuring the facts, is the difficulty of obtaining accurate and consistent measurements from drinkers overtime. Those who consume wine, for example, tend to drink it slower, during meals and have more wealth-- all factors that predispose them to better overall health than say, someone who regularly drinks a lot of cheap beer. 

Of course, controversy over the “healthy” amounts of alcohol one can consume is nothing new. A study released earlier this year in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs reviewed findings from 87 previously published reports on drinking and death, from all causes.

The report found that all but 13 of those reviewed had critical flaws.  Most of those examined didn’t account for medical reasons that may have pushed abstainers to avoid alcohol. That caused an exaggeration in the benefits seen with a moderate drinking level.

The 13 studies that did account for abstainer bias found no health benefits associated with drinking.

The re-evaluation of alcohol consumption is already causing governments to make policy changes. In January new guidelines put forth by the U.K.'s Chief Medical Officers warned that any level of drinking alcohol increases the chance of getting several different types of cancers. That followed a new review by the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) on alcohol and cancer risk.

That analysis found the benefits of alcohol for heart health to only be applicable for women over age 55. Still, the group concluded that there was no justification for drinking solely for health reasons.

And in the U.S., the research is already raising alarm among groups that represent alcoholic beverage producers. In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services removed language in its guidelines on alcohol consumption that said light drinking could lower the risk of heart disease for some people.