- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

Alcohol is as harmful as tobacco and high blood pressure in causing death and disability, a new international study suggests. But some are wary of the findings, citing a plethora of research data indicating that moderate drinking is beneficial to health.

“Overall, 4 percent of the global burden of disease is attributable to alcohol, which accounts for about as much death and disability globally as tobacco and hypertension,” said Robin Room, a Swedish researcher who with colleagues from the United States and Canada recently published an assessment of how alcohol consumption affects public health in the Lancet, a British medical journal.

By comparison, the researchers said, tobacco accounts for 4.1 percent of the global burden of disease and death, and high blood pressure, 4.4 percent.

Mr. Room and his colleagues point out that alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions, including liver, breast and oral cancers, as well as heart disease, stroke and cirrhosis. Alcohol also increases the risk of car accidents, drownings, falls, and homicides, they add.

Skeptics argue that smoking causes many more deaths than drinking, adding that it has been long listed as the most preventable cause of death in the United States.

Mr. Room doesn’t dispute that fact but adds that deaths from smoking are usually in older people than those from drinking. When the two are compared on the basis of years of life lost, he said, they are about equal.

In addition, the researchers contend that alcohol creates problems not only for drinkers but for those around them on the highway and in the home by increasing the risk for violence and injury.

“Alcohol is a substantial health problem in the world. It is a particular problem in the developing countries that are well off and in the developed world,” Mr. Room told Reuters news agency.

The investigators acknowledge that patterns of drinking and level of consumption have a direct effect on alcohol-related illnesses and deaths. And those who remain skeptical of their findings say such information is vital if there is to be a valid analysis of the risks or benefits of alcohol.

“I like the Ben Franklin approach, which is moderation in all things,” said Bruce A. Carnes, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, who is a specialist in longevity.

He cited a variety of reports that have associated moderate consumption of red wine with reduced cardiovascular risk. There have been other studies, he said, suggesting that men and women who have one glass of beer or some other alcoholic drink at mealtime are at less risk for heart disease than are teetotalers.

“If you drink enough, alcohol can be an extreme risk factor. But at very low levels, alcohol can be moderately protective,” Dr. Carnes said in a telephone interview.

In contrast, he said, “It’s unclear there is any level of smoking that is beneficial. Smoking is an unabashed health hazard.”


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