- - Monday, October 19, 2020

Here’s the bad news: According to the latest study, we are all going to die. Worse, it is for the most part sooner than expected. I’m not talking about COVID-19. 

Published studies caution coffee causes cancer; buttered popcorn increases risks of Alzheimer’s disease; and soda raises the probability of premature death. It seems like an entire industry exists to support the warnings that “everything will kill you” sooner than expected.

Every behavior or activity is seemingly associated with some level of risk that is too often assumed more dangerous than reality. It’s estimated the probability of being killed in an accident involving a vending machine is 1 in 112 million. That is twice the danger of being killed in a shark attack. Worried about being killed by a drunk driver? It happens once for every 300 million vehicle-miles traveled. The annual odds of getting struck by lighting is 1 in 700,000.

In addition to diet drinks (which studies say will make you fat), small amounts of wine, spirits or beer are the latest cancer culprits. 

A Gates Foundation funded study claims, “the safest level of drinking is none.” Last year, The New York Times reported, “Even a Little Alcohol May Raise Cancer Risk” — an idea echoed in lock step by other media outlets selling headlines rather than reliable science. 

Take a widely publicized study that explores the connection between moderate drinking and breast cancer. The authors indicate consuming a small glass of beer, wine or spirits on a daily basis raises the risk of breast cancer by five percent. It’s a finding out of context.

According to the National Cancer Institute, a 40-year old woman has a 1.5 percent probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer over the next decade (different age cohorts have greater or lesser risk levels). After applying the reported five percent uptick for a daily drink, the absolute risk of a breast cancer diagnosis rises by less than one-tenth of one percent. 

Before you think even that risk is significant, consider that family genetics is a far greater risk factor than that drink. Johns Hopkins reports that women who have inherited a damaged gene associated with the condition have up-to an 80 percent likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer over a lifetime. How about a series of high-profile headlines making family history and genetic markers the priority? 

But there’s more. Consider the validity of the underlying data. Researchers rely on the recollection of participants ranging back years to record total drinking activity. Can you accurately remember and report your daily food and drink history over decades? I’m not certain what I had for dinner last Thursday.  

It’s nearly impossible to control for the web of confounding variables that affect human health in these observational analyses. 

Mountains of prior research conducted over decades links moderate drinking to modest health benefits — including a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and even all-cause mortality. Although alcohol should never be treated as “medicine,” the positive health effects should remain part of the equation. 

Just a few years out of law school I was diagnosed with a rare cancer coupled to a bleak chance of survival. Up until then I had never had a stitch or broken a bone. I wanted to know why this was happening to me. I had no indicative family history. Lifestyle wasn’t a factor. My doctor was the peer reviewed senior oncologist for a top New York hospital. His response was telling: While there is no shortage of research in the area, cancer is complex and there are simply too many variables to know what caused my unique circumstance. And yet, the cancer-focused public health lobby claims they can lean on sketchy evidence to isolate one presumed causal factor for one tenth of one percent of the problem.

The American Cancer Society, which previously implied moderate drinking was not a significant risk factor, recently recommended that Americans should not consume alcohol at all. In a similar vein, new federal dietary guidelines, which are expected to be released later this year, may caution men with a new health warning to not exceed one drink a day. The herd mentality has dismissed all the positive counter health research endorsements. 

In addition to the flaws of memory-dependent methodology, only a single study drove the conclusion that two drinks should be discouraged. The integrity of government advice shouldn’t be compromised by relying on a single remarkably weak analysis. Just as importantly, the news media should have better reporting than scary headlines about one tenth of one percent chances of anything.

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C.

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