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How Bad Is Drinking for You, Really?

How Bad Is Drinking for You, Really?

Update: 2024-07-0521
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Digest

This episode of The Daily delves into the complex relationship between alcohol and health, tracing the shift in scientific understanding over decades. The episode begins by highlighting the widespread confusion surrounding alcohol's effects, fueled by conflicting messages about its benefits and risks. The narrative then focuses on the groundbreaking research of Tim Stockwell and Kay Middleton Philmore, who challenged the prevailing belief that moderate alcohol consumption was protective against heart disease. Their research, which involved re-categorizing data to account for "sick quitters" (former drinkers who stopped due to illness), revealed that moderate drinking did not have the previously assumed protective effects. This finding sparked controversy and resistance from the alcohol industry, but subsequent research, including a massive study published in 2023, further solidified the conclusion that any amount of alcohol increases the risk of alcohol-related mortality. The episode concludes with a discussion of the individual and societal implications of this new understanding, emphasizing the need for personal reflection on one's relationship with alcohol and the complex interplay of individual risks, social harms, and the cultural significance of drinking.

Outlines

00:00:00
Introduction: The Evolving Understanding of Alcohol

This Chapter introduces the topic of alcohol's health effects and the conflicting messages that have emerged over the past several decades. It highlights the confusion surrounding the benefits and risks of drinking, prompting the journalist Susan Dominus to embark on a journey to uncover the truth.

00:00:30
The Rise and Fall of the 'Red Wine is Good for You' Narrative

This Chapter explores the history of research on alcohol's health effects, focusing on the influential studies from the 1990s that suggested moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, was beneficial for heart health. It discusses the widespread acceptance of this narrative and its impact on public perception and alcohol consumption.

00:06:40
Challenging the 'Settled Science': The Sick Quitters Hypothesis

This Chapter delves into the research of Tim Stockwell and Kay Middleton Philmore, who challenged the prevailing belief that moderate alcohol consumption was protective. They argued that previous studies had miscategorized data, failing to account for "sick quitters" who had stopped drinking due to illness. Their research, which re-analyzed the data, revealed that moderate drinking did not have the previously assumed protective effects.

00:12:56
Understanding Risk: Individual and Societal Perspectives

This Chapter explores different ways to understand the risks associated with alcohol consumption. It discusses the concept of increased risk of premature death from alcohol-related causes, highlighting the individual and societal implications of this risk. It also examines the concept of lost life expectancy due to alcohol consumption, providing a framework for individuals to assess their own drinking habits.

Keywords

Alcohol
Alcohol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a psychoactive drug that is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic beverages. It is produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeast. Alcohol consumption has been a part of human culture for millennia, with various social, cultural, and religious implications. It is a widely used recreational drug, but its consumption can also lead to various health problems, including addiction, liver disease, and cancer.

Tim Stockwell
Tim Stockwell is a Canadian researcher who has studied the effects of alcohol on the body for decades. He is known for his groundbreaking research on the "sick quitters" hypothesis, which challenged the prevailing belief that moderate alcohol consumption was protective against heart disease. Stockwell's research has significantly contributed to the current understanding of alcohol's health effects and has been influential in shaping public health policies related to alcohol consumption.

Kay Middleton Philmore
Kay Middleton Philmore was a researcher who collaborated with Tim Stockwell on challenging the prevailing belief that moderate alcohol consumption was protective against heart disease. She played a crucial role in developing the "sick quitters" hypothesis, which argued that previous studies had miscategorized data, failing to account for former drinkers who had stopped due to illness. Philmore's research, along with Stockwell's, has significantly contributed to the current understanding of alcohol's health effects.

Sick Quitters
The term "sick quitters" refers to former drinkers who stopped drinking due to illness. This group is often included in the category of abstainers in research studies, which can skew the results and create the illusion that moderate drinking is beneficial. The "sick quitters" hypothesis, developed by Tim Stockwell and Kay Middleton Philmore, highlights the importance of accounting for this group in research studies to accurately assess the health effects of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol-Related Mortality
Alcohol-related mortality refers to deaths caused by alcohol consumption or its consequences. This includes deaths from alcohol poisoning, liver disease, heart disease, cancer, and accidents related to alcohol intoxication. Research has shown that any amount of alcohol consumption increases the risk of alcohol-related mortality, with the risk increasing with higher levels of consumption.

Moderate Drinking
Moderate drinking refers to consuming alcohol in moderation, typically defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. While previously believed to have protective health effects, current research indicates that even moderate drinking increases the risk of alcohol-related mortality. The definition of moderate drinking can vary depending on factors such as age, gender, and health status.

Public Health
Public health is a field that focuses on the health of populations. It encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including epidemiology, biostatistics, health education, and environmental health. Public health professionals work to prevent disease, promote health, and improve the overall well-being of communities. The understanding of alcohol's health effects has significant implications for public health policies and interventions aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm.

Social Harms
Social harms refer to the negative consequences of alcohol consumption on society. These include issues such as violence, crime, accidents, and social disruption. Alcohol consumption is highly associated with various social ills, including sexual assault, domestic violence, and dangerous driving. Understanding the social harms associated with alcohol consumption is crucial for developing effective public health policies and interventions to mitigate these negative impacts.

Q&A

  • What was the prevailing belief about alcohol's health effects in the 1990s?

    In the 1990s, research suggested that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, was beneficial for heart health. This belief was widely accepted and influenced public perception and alcohol consumption.

  • What is the "sick quitters" hypothesis and how did it challenge the prevailing belief about moderate drinking?

    The "sick quitters" hypothesis, developed by Tim Stockwell and Kay Middleton Philmore, argued that previous studies had miscategorized data, failing to account for former drinkers who had stopped drinking due to illness. This miscategorization created the illusion that moderate drinking was protective, when in reality, it did not have the previously assumed benefits.

  • What are the key takeaways from the research on alcohol's health effects?

    Current research indicates that any amount of alcohol consumption increases the risk of alcohol-related mortality. This means that even moderate drinking is not without risks. The risk of alcohol-related mortality increases with higher levels of consumption.

  • How can individuals understand the risks associated with alcohol consumption?

    Individuals can understand the risks associated with alcohol consumption by considering the increased risk of premature death from alcohol-related causes and the potential loss of life expectancy due to alcohol consumption. It is important to weigh these risks against the potential benefits of alcohol consumption and make informed decisions about their drinking habits.

  • What are the social harms associated with alcohol consumption?

    Alcohol consumption is highly associated with various social ills, including violence, crime, accidents, and social disruption. It is important to consider the potential harm that alcohol consumption can pose to others, in addition to the individual risks.

  • How does the episode encourage individuals to think about their relationship with alcohol?

    The episode encourages individuals to reflect on their own relationship with alcohol, considering their individual risks, the potential social harms, and the cultural significance of drinking. It emphasizes the need for personal reflection and informed decision-making about alcohol consumption.

Show Notes

Midway through one of the booziest holiday weekends of the year, we re-examine our love-hate relationship with alcohol.

Susan Dominus, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, gets to the bottom of the conflicting guidance on the benefits and risks of drinking.

Guest: Susan Dominus, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Background reading: 

For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday

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How Bad Is Drinking for You, Really?

How Bad Is Drinking for You, Really?

The New York Times