UK raises the red flag on claims of red wine providing protection from coronavirus

Public Health officials in Britain and the WHO have debunked claims that five drinks of red wine every week provided some degree of protection from the coronavirus

Representative image
Representative image

Bharat Dogra

Recently sections of the British media including the Daily Mail published reports that five drinks of red wine a week can protect to some extent from coronavirus. These reports were soon picked up in other countries.

Before rushing to publish such false claims the media ignored three rather obvious truths. The WHO had recently released an advisory that any claim of alcoholic drinks giving protection from coronavirus were false. Secondly, these reports ignored the frequent tendency of lobyyists to give false publicity to imagined health effects of their products in the past which have proved very harmful for public health.

The red wine lobbyists also ignored public health officials in Britain refuting cIaims relating to imagined health benefits of red wine. Perhaps the best that can be said about such false claims is that these appear to be in tune with the times of –hic!—Boris Johnson.

It may be recalled that the powerful tobacco lobby had also spread falsehoods to undermine the steadily growing scientific evidence regarding the serious health risks of tobacco. Millions of dollars were spent on this lobbying, with huge benefits doled out to corrupt scientists, decision-makers and the media. The lobbyists and their collaborators made huge fortunes while public health suffered.

Something similar is now happening in the context of alcohol, with the highly resourceful and powerful alcohol lobby spending lavishly to compromise decision makers, researchers and media. In some developing countries including India clever, subtle strategies and surrogate advertising have been used to relate alcohol consumption with modern, aspirational living.

But public health officials and scientists have stood firmly by scientific evidence which confirms adverse health impact of alcohol abuse. Dame Sally Davies, acting as Chief Medical Officer of Britain, overcame a lot of resistance from liquor industry lobbyists to radically change two decade old guidelines which had understated health risks of liquor.

The new guidelines came in the wake of growing concern over reported 500 per cent increase in deaths from liver diseases among working age people in Britain since the 1970s. To a large extent the alarming rise in health risks of alcohol took place because of lobbyists who kept repeating that a glass of red wine a day is good for us.

The evidence regarding the closer link between liquor and a range of cancer seem to have been supported by a new review from the Committee on Carcinogenicity in Britain. The development of the new guidelines was chaired by Prof. Mark Petticrew, Prof. of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and by Prof. Sally Macintyre, Prof. Emeritus at the University of Glasgow.

The new guidelines on liquor consumption which were issued in 2016 replacing two-decades old guidelines warn that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers. The guidelines said no level of alcohol is safe for drinking in pregnancy. These guidelines also made it clear that there was no justification for drinking for health reasons.

Despite growing evidence of health risks from alcohol, at least partly because of overactive lobbyists, there has been a significant rise in liquor consumption globally.

The WHO status report on alcohol tells us that the health and social harms from drinking alcohol occur through three main interrelated mechanisms: 1) the toxic effects of alcohol on diverse organs and tissues in the consumer’s body (resulting, for instance, in liver disease, heart disease or cancer); 2) development of alcohol dependence whereby the drinker’s self-control over his or her drinking is impaired, often involving alcohol-induced mental disorders such as depression or psychoses; and 3) through intoxication – the psychoactive effects of alcohol in the hours after drinking

The risks are even higher for females than males. Even moderate alcohol intake, corresponding to daily consumption of no more than 25 grams of pure alcohol, has been shown to increase the risk of developing female breast cancer.

However, the alcohol industry and its lobbyists have worked overtime to ensure that the massive adverse impacts of alcohol consumption are not reported adequately.

A recent study led by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute concluded that the alcohol industry “uses denial, distortion and distraction to mislead people about the risks from drinking, often employing similar tactics to those of the tobacco industry."

(The writer is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Earth without Borders. Views are personal)

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