John JuergensSerious health stuff

A couple of weeks ago my local newspaper published a guest column titled, "Women at risk: wine and cardiovascular disease." The author was a member of the community who enjoys regularly stirring the alcohol and health pot with irrational and inflammatory rhetoric. This article was filled with factually incorrect health information and personal opinions, and the author grossly misrepresented a variety of otherwise respectable sources of information. I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my concern for the misinformation that was contained in her article, and pointed out some of the more egregious errors.

As a health scientist I have had over 20 years of experience in research and education in the area of alcohol and health, and have amassed a bibliography of hundreds of research articles on both the positive and negative effects of alcohol. I have conducted continuing medical education seminars on the topics, including several in conjunction with the American Heart Association. Because of this background, I was highly disturbed at the way this person, who has no training in the health sciences, cherry-picked bits of information and quotes from reputable sources out of context to try to force her thinly veiled personal anti-alcohol agenda on others.

When discussing alcohol and health issues, it is critical to make sure the information is accurate, current, and balanced. It is absolutely true that alcohol abuse continually causes devastating damage to a certain portion of society. But it is also true that millions of people use various forms of alcohol safely and responsibly every day.

A common tactic of the anti-alcohol faction is to cloak their agenda in grossly misrepresented medical-scientific research data, and by quoting individuals and organizations out of context in an attempt to scare people into accepting their arguments. Individuals and organizations such as the notoriously Machiavellian Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - which, by the way, does neither science nor works in the true public interest - usually target complex topics with high visibility in the media. Wine and health is one of their all time favorite arenas in which to cause mischief. They make shrill, fear-inducing claims that do nothing to educate and inform, but rather exacerbate and cloud an already confusing, complex, and emotion-laden topic.

I have had the pleasure of confronting representatives of some of these groups face to face, and their bravado usually collapses rapidly like a balloon filled with hot air poked with a sharp needle. For example, when I challenged a spokesperson from CSPI about their misleading approach to health issues related to wine and other consumer goods, rather than arguing from a position of defensible data he justified it by saying that they had to use scare tactics to get through all the media "noise" so they could be heard. Never mind that what they are trying to get people to hear is biased and misleading information. The scary thing was that he and his co-conspirators saw nothing wrong with this tactic and felt completely justified in doing so. They also seem to be oblivious to the fact that their over-zealous and sometimes bizarre approach only serves to marginalize them as the radical fringe.

But there always is a portion of the population that will not see through the hysterical claims and will be taken in by these tactics. People and organizations that engage in this kind of irrational sensationalism do a reckless disservice to and insult the intelligence of the public they claim to care about. If they were truly interested in promoting things like healthy drinking they would be making every effort to give the public balanced and accurate information to help illuminate the issue.

When it comes to alcohol and health, it is like most other aspects of life, and that is moderation, balance, and common sense should be our guiding principles. And for some people with certain conditions or genetic predispositions, exposure to alcohol and many other things from peanuts to penicillin in any quantity can cause severe negative health consequences.

I receive on a regular basis the most current research information on what we know and do not know about how alcohol consumption affects health. But the general public normally only receives disjointed and incomplete information through the mass media, and through junk mail such as that generated by CSPI and other such manipulative organizations that traffic in fear to win over the uninformed.

When a new report comes out that supports the potential benefits or the negative consequences of alcohol consumption it rarely is put into the context of all the other research data and information that has come before it. That is why is it so important to not make any kind of major changes in alcohol consumption for health reason without first getting the facts from reputable sources and checking with your physician.

A good rule of thumb to use when you hear a report on a new study about alcohol and health, whether it is positive or negative, is to be a bit skeptical until you can figure out how it fits with all the other information out there. The same goes for the information disseminated by any organization that seems to be one-sided. If it presents only one side of the issue then it is biased and not to be trusted.

When it comes to human health, there are few absolutes that apply to all people. When it comes to alcohol and health reports, always look to the source of the information and assume there is a hidden agenda at work until you can verify otherwise.

A toast to rationality and common sense.


April 2008

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