Should I Take to Drink?
By Bryan Caplan
I’m the kind of patient who tries doctors’ patience. A memorable check-up from a few years ago (before Robin Hanson convinced me they were a waste of time):
Doc: Do you smoke?
Doc: Do you drink?
Doc: Not at all?
Me: Not at all.
Me: Is it? Isn’t there evidence that moderate drinking is good for you health?
Doc: Uh, yes.
Me: Then why did you say “Good”?
Doc: Well, heavy drinking is bad for you.
Me: But you said it was good that I don’t drink at all.
Doc: [awkward silence]
Me: Do you ever advise a patient to start drinking?
Doc: [fear of lawsuit in her eyes, channeling Darth Vader at the end of Episode III] Noooooo!!!
Since I turn 35 in a week, I’m once again pondering whether I should take to drink. The last time I thought about it, I looked around for a good survey of the medical literature, but didn’t have much success. I do recall reading a skeptic saying that “moderate drinking is good for you” research bundles together lifelong teetotalers with recovering alcoholics. Seemed plausible, but the skeptic didn’t really have any data.
But now, just in time for my birthday, there’s a new meta-study backing up the skeptic. Lucky me!
Researchers at UCSF pored through more than 30 years of studies that seem to show health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, and concluded in a report released today that nearly all contained a fundamental error that skewed the results.
The common error was to lump into the group of “abstainers” people who were once drinkers but had quit.
Fillmore and colleagues from the University of Victoria, British Columbia; and Curtin University, in Perth, Australia, analyzed 54 different studies examining the relationship between light to moderate drinking and health. Of these, only seven did not inappropriately mingle former drinkers and abstainers.
All seven of those studies found no significant differences in the health of those who drank — or previously drank — and those who never touched the stuff. The remaining 47 studies represent the body of research that has led to a general scientific consensus that moderate drinking has a health benefit.
Fillmore’s team of researchers took their initial finding one step further, and introduced the error into the data compiled in the seven studies and, voila, the results changed to show drinkers had better health than abstainers.
So for now, my birthday present to myself is to stick to delicious IBC root beer.