Perhaps, like me, you saw or read the story this week that a study has shown a link between cancer and alcohol in women. According to most of the new major news outlets, the study showed that even drinking one alcoholic drink per day significantly increases your risk for cancer, if you’re a woman.
Since I think a glass of wine with dinner is one of the things that make life worth living, of course I was alarmed by this report. That was what it was designed to do. But the skeptic in me thought I should take a closer look.
- The study itself is behind a paywall. That means that probably no journalists reporting the story read the actual study, only the press release sent out about it.
- The numbers reported in the study actually show the opposite of what was reported: women drinking as many as 2 drinks per day were associated with lower actual incidences of all cancers compared with nondrinkers.
- The difference in cancer risk between the drinkers and nondrinkers was so tiny as to be negligible; still, nondrinking was associated with a 0.4% higher incidence of all cancers compared to women drinking 2 drinks a day. But the conclusion that there is a link at all is not really supported by the evidence.
When something like this comes out, claiming that one food or drink we are ingesting has significant health benefits or risks, we really must question it. Our bodies are complex systems, and as such, it is very difficult to isolate any one thing — unless it is highly poisonous or toxic — as having a detrimental effect. These studies bother me because they try to isolate one thing and show a correlation, without taking into account all of the other substances that could affect the results.
But what I find particularly upsetting about studies like this, with such a clear agenda, is that they provide ammunition to governments to try to legislate what they consider “healthful” behavior. I don’t think it is the role of government to tell us what we can or cannot eat. Responsible adults should be allowed to make those choices for themselves.