WHO Seeks to 'Denormalize' Bev/Al

The World Healh Organization has alcohol in its crosshairs.  We've been delivering that warning for about two years, and it explains in part the growth of the nonalcohol segment and the drop in sales experienced by many producers worldwide.

An article in Meininger's International notes that the World Health Organization has changed the way it talks about alcohol.  Previously, health warnings around bev/al focused on three things: drunk driving, underage drinking and fetal alcohol syndrome.

But that's so 1980-ish.

The World Health Organization's new approach seeks to make alcohol socially unacceptable.  Not illegal,  but unacceptable, just like tobacco.  It's legal to buy and smoke cigarettes and other tobacco products, but almost no one smokes in public, the cigarette manufacturers are trying to find an alternative product.

The particular context anti-alcohol advocates are using this time is to say, as we've reported, that alcohol is bad for your health. But what about those studies back in the 1980s highlighted on the CBS 60 Minutes segment, "The French Paradox"?  

Well, they say, those studies that have shown an association between moderate drinking and a lower risk of dying from heart disease have a flaw: It's hard to be sure that it's the alcohol that's providing protection. Maybe, they argue, people who show a lower death rate and also drink follow a healthy diet, such as a Mediterranean or Vegan diet.

That's the problem with nutrition research – there will always be confounding variables.  In some cases, you can absolutely establish that one thing has led to another.  For instance, in the 1960s, Colin T. Campbell, a researcher at Cornell University, worked with two other researchers, in a large study that covered the entire county of China, from the Eastern border to its Western border.  They found that people from the very rural western part of China had an extremely low incidence of death from cardiovascular disease.  But those who live in the Eastern part of the country, where people in the big cities had adopted a Western-style  diet had high rates of death from cardiovascular disease.  The conclusion: The Western diet is a deadly diet.  

Oher research involved Finland which came under Nazi control during World War II.  The Finns became vegetarians because virtually all meat was seized to feed the German troops. Interestingly, during this period cardiovascular deaths plunged.  But a couple of years after the end of World War II, the Finns were once again able to eat meat – and deaths from cardiovascular disease rose dramatically.  

Those were observational studies, just as the studies showing moderate alcohol consumption leads to lower rates of cardiovascular deaths.  Exactly why this effect occurred was not clear until Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, took management of eight cardiac patients who had been told by the clinic's cardiologists that there was nothing that could be done to reverse their heart disease.  They would be dead in a matter of months.

Esselstyn  put these eight people on a strict vegan diet and also did a number of radiological studies enabling him to see what was happening in their blood vessels and heart.  When looked at over time, those x-rays showed a progressive clearing of arteries that had been seriously clogged.  There was no doubt that a vegan diet could reverse heart disease. Esselstyn discussed this in a TED talk.

These studies and others led the U.S. Dietary Guidelines to recommend half of the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, a bit over one-quarter of grains, and about 20% of protein – meat, fish, etc.  They explicitly do not say people should not drink alcohol, but they do recommend no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

The WHO's latest pronouncement, published in The Lancet, which many regard as the premiere medical journal in the world, focuses on cancer and states that "in the EU, cancer is the leading cause of death...and the majority of all alcohol-attributable deaths are due to different types of cancers."  That statement in itself is questionable: Cancer is not the leading cause of death in the EU, according to Health at a Glance: Europe 2022, cardiovascular disease is.

Lung cancer is the most common cause of death by cancer among men and second most common among women, and "the main risk factor is smoking," not alcohol.  So it would seem that, at least at the moment, the WHO should be focusing its firepower on tobacco, not alcohol.

Ironically, another WHO study, this one in 2007, found a clear relationship between abusive drinking and being poor or in poverty.  The WHO Lancet statement acknowledges the link, but observes, "Although it is well established that alcohol can cause cancer, this fact is still not widely known to the public in most countries. We need cancer-related health information messages on labels of alcoholic beverages, following the example of tobacco products."

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