The U.N.'s Neo-Prohibitionists

The United Nations (search) is coming for your booze and it’s starting to fabricate the kind of factoids that the international health nannies will no doubt try to spin into "conventional wisdom."

"The amount of death and disability caused by alcohol globally is similar to that caused by tobacco and high blood pressure," trumpets the media release for a study in last week’s medical journal "The Lancet."

"Overall, four percent of the global burden of disease is attributable to alcohol, 4.1 percent to tobacco and 4.4 percent to high blood pressure. Alcohol is causally related to more than 60 different medical conditions, including breast cancer and coronary heart disease. In most cases, alcohol has a detrimental effect on health," claims the release.

The study authors, from Sweden, Canada and the U.S., claim there’s a "growing contrast between the treatment of alcohol in trade agreements and disputes as an ordinary commodity and the more restrictive treatments of such other commodities as tobacco and pharmaceuticals, which also entail public health risks."

They end their study with a call for a "new international treaty on alcohol control, along the lines of the [United Nations’] Framework Convention on Tobacco Control."

The study’s claims seem largely based on a report from the U.N.’s World Health Organization (search) entitled "World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life" — a document that refers to alcohol consumption and other politically incorrect lifestyle choices as "enemies of health."

But before we fall for the tobacco-ization of alcohol, let’s look a little closer at some of the "analysis" that’s going into the effort to bring about global prohibition.

The claim equating alcohol with tobacco in terms of the "global burden of disease" largely depends on a statistical shenanigan called "attributable risk" that I’ve written about in an earlier column.

But I will let the U.N. debunk its own calculations in language taken directly from its 2002 report: "Causes [of disease] can add to more than 100 percent. If the scenarios were equally common, 66.6 percent of throat cancer would be attributable to smoking, 33.3 percent to alcohol, 100 percent to genetic causes, and 100 percent to unknown environmental causes, making a total of 300 percent. Causes can, and ideally should, total more than 100 percent; this is an inevitable result of different causes working together to produce the disease, and reflects the extent of our knowledge of disease causation."

So according to the U.N.’s math, we will all get throat cancer. Fortunately for us, however, the U.N. acknowledges that this claim reflects its "knowledge of disease causation" — which, as you can see, is quite impaired. The Lancet study authors claim that the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer is "clear."

Although linking alcohol intake with breast cancer seems to be a popular scare these days, the data are far from convincing. Study results are conflicting and among those studies that do report a statistical association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, they typically involve the sorts of weak correlations that aren’t terribly reliable.

Let’s not forget that, other than genetics, no one is quite sure what causes breast cancer. How any of this makes a link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer "clear" is not at all clear to me.

With respect to heart disease, many studies seem to indicate that moderate drinking actually reduces risk. Although the Lancet study authors acknowledge this, they claim that binge drinking increases the risk of stroke or sudden cardiac death. But the data supporting this notion are limited and unimpressive.

No one disputes that over-consumption of alcohol poses health risks, but so is too much of virtually any behavior. If the U.N.’s efforts were limited to combating alcohol abuse, I would not have written this column.

But many in the international anti-alcohol lobby are prohibitionists who apparently feel they need catchy-but-bogus factoids that the anti-tobacco crusaders used to promote anti-tobacco hysteria among the public — for example, "400,000 people die from smoking every year in the U.S." and "3,000 kids start smoking every day," etc.

Finally, I had to laugh at the end of the Lancet study where its authors state, "We declare that we have no conflict of interest."

I suppose that’s true in a world where you can only have a "conflict of interest" if you work for a profit-making entity.

The Lancet authors, however, appear to be heavily imbibing U.N. money — the World Health Organization (part of the U.N.) funded a 2003 study of theirs on alcohol consumption and disease burden published in the journal Addiction. Given the U.N.’s anti-alcohol campaign, isn’t that some sort of conflict of interest?

Steven Milloy publishes and, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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