However, that's not necessarily a green light to indulge, say the researchers, who included Alberto Ruano-Ravina of the preventive medicine and public health department at Spain's University of Santiago de Compostela.
The relationship between alcohol and health is hazy, with conflicting reports on a variety of conditions. Some experts report benefits; others highlight risks. And of course, drinking to excess has a host of health risks.
The study from Spain, which appears in the November issue of the journal Thorax, looked specifically at consumption of red wine, white wine, and rosé wine (which is about midway between red and white wine), as well as beer and liquor on the risk of lung cancer .
There were 140 lung cancer patients in the study and 187 people who did not have lung cancer. All were at the same hospital in northwest Spain for lung cancer treatment or minor surgery. Nearly 90 percent were men aged 62 or older.
Participants filled out questionnaires about topics including their jobs, smoking habits, and how much they drank of each beverage. Ideally, experts like to verify such reports, but that wasn't possible in this case.
Nondrinkers accounted for 25 percent of the cancer patients and 21 percent of the group without cancer. Drinkers in both groups said they consumed between three and four glasses of wine a day, with red wine ranking higher in popularity than white or rosé wine.
Because the researchers wanted to focus on the effects of each particular type of wine, they excluded 43 participants who said they didn't favor one kind of drink over the others.
Drinking red wine was associated with a reduced risk of developing lung cancer. In addition, red wine's protective effects appeared to increase with each glass.
White wine didn't fare as well. There was a "statistically significant association" between white wine consumption and developing lung cancer, say the researchers.
"In terms of the daily number of glasses, white wine appeared to increase the risk... Consumption of red wine, on the other hand, was associated with a slight but statistically significant reduction in the development of lung cancer," they write.
Red wine was associated with a 57 percent lower risk of developing lung cancer in people who drank it when compared with people who did not drink at all. In addition, the study showed that each daily glass of red wine reduced the risk of developing lung cancer by 13 percent.
Beer and liquor had no clear effects on lung cancer development.
The results remained intact after factoring in other risks associated with the development of lung cancer such as smoking, occupation, and total alcohol consumption.
Key Ingredients in Red Wine
Two components of red wine might be at work.
Compared with white and rosé wine, red wine has higher proportions of tannins (search), which have antioxidant powers, andresveratrol (search), which may help fight tumors. That could explain red wine's advantage, say the researchers.
Still, they're not ready to raise a toast just yet.
"From a public health standpoint, we feel that these results should be approached with caution as it would be extremely risky — and even dangerous — for recommendations to be drawn up endorsing a high consumption of red wine for the prevention of lung cancer in light of the well-known association between alcohol consumption and increased mortality," they write.
The best way to avoid lung cancer is to quit smoking, since the researchers cite studies that show 85 percent-90 percent of all lung cancers are related to tobacco use.
SOURCES: Ruano-Ravina, A. Thorax, November 2004; vol 59: pp 981-985. News release, BMJ Specialist Journals.