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Tactics: The Health Argument


For over a decade, the alcohol industry has worked overtime to promote messages about the health benefits of alcohol while downplaying its dangers.

The wine industry was the first to widely publicize and exaggerate health findings in the 1990s. Combined with recent claims by the makers of both spirits and beer, Big Alcohol spends millions in PR dollars to portray drinking as a healthy lifestyle choice.

Dietary Guidelines PR Spin

In 1995, evidence suggesting that moderate drinking was associated with a lower risk of heart disease in some individuals was included in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines, which are published every five years and meant to “provide authoritative advice…about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases,” caused a flurry of media attention.

Although the list of problems associated with drinking was also expanded in the guidelines, and it was recommended that drinking should occur only “at meals” and “when consumption does not out others at risk,” those details rarely made it into the news coverage. Instead, headlines such as, “Eat, Drink, and be Healthy” and “When it comes to Eating Right, Don’t Forget the Wine” rang out across the nation.

Despite the fact that the guidelines did not differentiate between wine and other forms of alcohol, the Wine Institute – representing more than 100 wineries – took the opportunity to publicize the guidelines, while conveniently leaving out the qualifying phrase, “in some individuals.”

In the San Francisco Chronicle, John DeLuca, then-president of the Wine Institute, was quoted as saying, "We had a campaign of tenacity, working with contributions from the scientific community . . . We have taken [wine drinking] away from the shadows of the past, where the industry was seen as a 'sin industry' and into something that is part of a healthy diet."

A number of the experts who authored the guidelines were frustrated by the corporate and media spin. One member of the group told the Marin Institute in 1997, “What bothered me was the publicity that said we made a recommendation to drink…I felt we were used by the Wine Institute.”

The Truth About the French

If you’ve heard the term “the French Paradox,” you’re familiar with a widely publicized notion that French people, despite consuming more fat and cholesterol than those in many other countries, have relatively low incidents of heart disease, presumably because of the amount of wine they consume. The buzz phrase, and the ideas that accompany it, were widely publicized on a 1991 episode of “60 Minutes” and have remained in the public consciousness ever since.

The French Paradox is said to have helped drive a significant increase in red wine sales in the U.S., up from 17 percent in 1991 to 42 percent of all wine sales in 2005.

The funny thing is the lack of scientific basis for the alleged paradox. While France – like Spain, Italy and other nations with high wine consumption – does have lower rates of heart disease, it is still the number one cause of death. And people in France suffer form a whole host of other alcohol-related health problems. For instance, the French drink one-and-a-half times more per capita than Americans and their death rate from cirrhosis is also one-and-a-half times higher. No paradox there.

Claude Got, one of France’s medical experts on alcohol and president of the scientific council of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told the Marin Institute in 2000:

"I can accept, as other epidemiologists, a favorable effect of a small amount of alcohol on ischaemic heart disease for some people. But man is not only a heart, and to improve the coronary arteries of a group of low-alcohol consumers is not a goal for public health if it has to pay with a high rate of liver cirrhosis, cardiomyopathy, road accidents, violence, hypertension, and nervous diseases produced by alcohol."

The French Paradox: Health and Alcohol Use in France 

Recent Data Highlights Industry Exaggeration

"Alcohol's risks have been understated because several studies have shown that a drink a day can reduce the risk of heart attack. As a result, the industry has been able to escape the harsh health warnings associated with cigarettes even though alcohol is an obvious public-health threat."
-- From the World Health Organization (WHO) Study: Alcohol as Damaging as Tobacco, 2004


"While moderate to heavy drinking is probably coronary-protective, any benefit will be overwhelmed by the known harms.
-- From the Lancet, New Zealand, 2005

“Although studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption could provide health benefits, researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conclude that those benefits vary widely depending on a person's age, sex, genes and other factors.

For example, NIAAA researchers said that while a drink or two of wine a day may benefit a 65-year-old man with high cholesterol, it may offer no value to a 22-year-old.”
-- From a 2004 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

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