Health-policy officials around the world are scrutinizing their previous advice regarding alcohol consumption in light of research pointing to possible cancer risks.
  1. The crux
    For decades, beer, wine and liquor producers have been helped by a notion, enshrined in a number of governments’ dietary advice, that a little alcohol can provide modest coronary and other health benefits. Rapidly, that advice is shifting. That change is pressuring the alcohol industry in some of its biggest markets, including the U.S., the U.K. and Russia.
  2. “There is no safe level of drinking,” U.K. Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies told a British television interviewer.
    In January, the U.K. weakened 20-year-old advice saying moderate drinking could benefit the heart, calling that benefit less than previously thought. It issued new guidelines saying alcohol raises the risk of certain cancers. Also in January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services scrapped the part of its guidelines that said light drinking could lower the risk of heart disease for some people.
  3. More countries take action on alcohol
    South Korea, citing possible cancer risks, this year joined Australia in tightening maximum recommended alcohol consumption. A few years earlier, Russia restricted alcohol sales and raised beer and vodka taxes following a WHO study describing various dangers it said drinking posed to health, such as leading to more accidents and infections.
  4. So what changed?
    The notion that light drinking can actually improve health in some ways—dates back to research four decades ago. A California cardiologist named Arthur Klatsky was trying to figure out what lifestyle factors might affect cardiovascular health. In what he says was a surprise, he discovered that light drinkers had fewer heart attacks than abstainers, as well as a lower statistical risk of dying from coronary heart disease. Now, newer research is once again shifting the consensus.
  5. New research puts alcohol industry on alert
    In a 2010 report, the WHO labeled drinking harmful on a population-wide scale, “even when consideration is given to the modest protective effects, especially on coronary heart disease, of low consumption of alcohol for some people aged 40 years or older.” It said “the harmful use of alcohol is a significant contributor” to some diseases, such as diabetes, and suggested that governments tax it to reduce consumption.
  6. How the alcohol industry is reacting
    The response is as expensive and sprawling as the threat it perceives, including attacking anti-alcohol advocates’ research and working with governments to formulate policy. Alcohol companies are funding their own research, including a plan by four companies to contribute tens of millions dollars toward the cost of a rigorous study. Said Beer Institute President Jim McGreevy, addressing executives at an April conference about the alcohol critics: “We can’t let them gain traction.”