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Is That Drink Worth It to You?

Drinking increased during the pandemic, which may be why news of any kind about alcohol seems to have found a receptive audience in recent years. In 2022, an episode of the podcast “Huberman Lab” that was devoted to elaborating alcohol’s various risks to body and brain was one of the show’s most popular of that year. Nonalcoholic spirits have gained such traction that they’ve started forming the basis for entire nightlife guides; and more people are now reporting that they consume cannabis than alcohol on a daily basis.

Some governments are responding to the new research by overhauling their messaging. Last year, Ireland became the first country to pass legislation requiring a cancer warning on all alcohol products sold there, similar to those found on cigarettes: “There is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers,” the language will read. And in Canada, the government has revised its alcohol guidelines, announcing: “We now know that even a small amount of alcohol can be damaging to health.” The guidelines characterize one to two drinks a week as carrying “low risk” and three to six drinks as carrying “moderate risk.” (Previously the guidelines suggested that women limit themselves to no more than two standard drinks most days, and that men place that limit at three.)

No amount of alcohol is good for you — that much is clear. But one might reasonably ask: Just how bad is it? The information we receive on health risks often glide over the specifics of how much actual risk a person faces, as if those were not details worth knowing. These days, when I contemplate a drink with dinner, I find myself wondering about how much to adjust my behavior in light of this new research. Over the years, we’ve been told so many things are either very good or very bad for us — drinking coffee, running, running barefoot, restricting calories, eating all protein, eating all carbs. The conversation in my head goes something like this: “Should I worry? Clearly, to some degree, yes. But how much, exactly?”

Tim Stockwell, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, is one of the people most responsible for our cultural course correction on alcohol, a credit that’s all the more notable since he used to be convinced of its health benefits. Stockwell believed so strongly in the soundness of moderate drinking that he wrote, in a commentary in Australia’s premier medical journal in 2000, that skeptics on that subject might reasonably be lumped into the same category as “doubters of manned lunar missions and members of the Flat Earth Society.”

Not long after that, Stockwell received a phone call from Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who told him that she had her doubts about the research that Stockwell considered so sound. Fillmore was concerned about possible misleading variables in the studies: To start, they included ex-drinkers in the category of “abstainers,” which meant they were failing to account for the possibility that some people had stopped drinking specifically because of illness. The moderate drinkers looked healthy by comparison, creating the illusion that a moderate amount of alcohol was beneficial.

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