No, the new study on wine and heart health does not disprove wine’s benefits

If you follow the news on wine and health, you will have seen the numerous reports recently on the large study finally proving once and for all that even one glass of wine is bad for your heart. RIP French Paradox, sorry it took so long (nearly 30 years) to sort it out. This study got a lot of press, and the top line was consistent in damning our daily tipple. Normally I would have jumped into the fray early with a rational analysis, but this time I was curious to see whether a voice of reason would speak up. Plus, I’ve been preoccupied with my regular job as a surgeon. So I find myself at the tail end of this particular news cycle, raising my hand from the back of the room to point out that THAT IS NOT WHAT THE STUDY SAID.

The study was essentially a data mining exercise from several European community cohorts. Press releases and content aggregators disseminated the central finding – that even a single drink per day was associated with an increased risk of a serious heart condition called atrial fibrillation – as damning evidence.  “Drinking one small glass of wine a day is linked to heart problems, study finds” and “No, A Glass of Wine a Day Is Not Good for You” were the headlines. Here’s the problem: the study actually confirmed that overall risk of heart disease and risk of life-threatening conditions follow the familiar J-shaped curve, even accounting for this one condition, as the accompanying editorial in the journal pointed out. The study does nothing to refute that the vast majority of moderate drinkers are healthier. If you are at particular risk for atrial fibrillation for whatever reason, by all means be careful about alcohol. But it is a mistake to conclude that this analysis somehow refutes decades of epidemiologic research on the French paradox and healthy drinking.

Why reports on wine and health still get it wrong

One can only speculate on why these sorts of misinterpretations happen. I believe that primary fault falls at the feet of the journal that published the piece, too eager to promote it. While the article’s methodology is technically sound (within the limits of the self-reported data upon which it relies,) and peer review undoubtedly objective, it is disingenuous to extrapolate broad advice about drinking from one relatively small disease subset. They know that, but scientific journals are for-profit enterprises, and the sort of competition for attention and publicity that is necessary for relevance today is not something that was baked into the original formula. They need a controversial tagline. It’s just not that interesting to say “yes, we confirmed in yet another study that moderate drinking is good except for this particular condition.” Anyone writing content that they expect to attract attention operates with similar motivation, and almost no one with the expertise to dig a little deeper is policing it in nanosecond news cycles.

The cynical side of me posits that no one is moved by these reports anyway. Wine drinkers will continue to drink for their own reasons, justifying however they care to, and for most that is still a good thing. Problem drinkers aren’t likely to be shocked into abstinence by these reports either. All we can hold out for is a measure of scientific honesty, an increasingly rare bottling these days.

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