DISCUS Decries NIAAA Chief's Call for 2 Drinks a Week Limit

Dr. George Koob, director, National Institute on Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse, undermined "the scientific rigor and objectivity of the entire Dietary Guidelines process" when he said the U.S. Department of Agriculture could revise its alcohol advice to match Canada's, where the government recently advised people to have just two drinks a week, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. said.

The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends just one drink a day for women, two for men.  But Koob said that the Guidelines' alcohol recommendation is currently under review, and "if they go in any direction, it would be toward Canada."

Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. quickly responded with a statement from Amanda Berger, vp-science and health, saying that Koob's comments "calling for a drastic change to the federal recommendation on alcohol before the review of alcohol research has even begun undermines the scientific rigor and objectivity of the entire Dietary Guidelines process.

"For more than 30 years, the federal guidance on alcohol consumption has been no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men for those who choose to drink. It is extremely alarming and inappropriate for a federal official to predetermine the outcome of the Dietary Guidelines and suggest changing decades of precedent without the benefit of the scientific review to support such a sweeping move."

Beer Institute and Wine Institute did not respond to our request for comment.  

The press office at NIAAA noted the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are recommendations.  “They provide advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease.”

Koob told the Daily Mail, a London newspaper, there weren't any benefits to drinking alcohol in terms of physical health.

For more than 35 years, moderate consumption of alcohol, and in particular red wine, has been associated with a significant reduction in cardiovascular disease.  

Koob pooh-poohed that body of research, saying: "Most of the benefits people attribute to alcohol, we feel they really have more to do with what someone's eating rather than what they're drinking.

"So it really has to do with the Mediterranean diet, socio-economic status, that makes you able to afford that kind of diet and make your own fresh food and so forth.

"With this in mind, most of the benefits kind of disappear on the health side."

How much Koob or others understand the Mediterranean Diet is open to question.  "The Mediterranean Way of Drinking and Longevity," a study in NIH's National Library of Medicine, notes that " Moderate wine drinking is part of the Mediterranean diet, together with abundant and variable plant foods, high consumption of cereals, olive oil as the main (added) fat and a low intake of (red) meat. This healthy diet pattern involves a "Mediterranean way of drinking that is a regular, moderate wine consumption mainly with food (up to two glasses a day for men and one glass for women). Moderate wine drinking increases longevity, reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and does not appreciably influence the overall risk of cancer."

Unable to counter evidence that light to moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular and certain other diseases, anti-alcohol advocates have seized on research showing that drinking raised the risk of cancer. One 2020 study, for example, conceded that "evidence has suggested that there may be benefits from moderate consumption of alcohol, such as lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and dementia."  But, it suggested, these benefits might not exist.   That study emphasized that even small amounts have been linked with several types of cancer.

The same researchers whose studies have demonstrated the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease have acknowledged that alcohol consumption, especially heavy drinking, can increase the risk of various cancers.   But, they say, heart disease kills far more Americans each year than cancer, a point neither Koob nor the study  mentioned.  

DISCUS's Amanda Berger isn't the only critic of the studies embraced by Koob.  Eric Rimm, a professor in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition—who headed the panel that created the 2010 guideline recommendations—said in an August 5, 2020, article in Wine Spectator the panel “ignored all research before 2010 and were very dismissive of observational studies of alcohol and chronic disease, even though this represents the only way to study alcohol and long-term health.”

The current committee “got it wrong and was overly conservative about their advice for adults that drink moderately, can control their consumption and do not binge drink,” Rimm said.

Koob is not the first person to propose revising the Dietary Guidelines to reduce to alcohol consumption recommendation.  In 2020, the advisory panel proposed a new guideline for men of just one drink a day.  That proposal ultimately wasn't accepted.

(This story was updated at 5:42 pm, Sept.  4, to include a statement from NIAAA.)