- A team of scientists and doctors has recommended that men limit themselves to no more than one drink a day. Government officials will take into account those suggestions as they prepare to release final dietary guidelines before the end of the year.
- Female drinkers are already advised to cut themselves off after one alcoholic beverage a day, and no changes are expected.
- The government issues new eating and drinking tips every five years based on the latest available science.
- Critics say the latest push from the panel of scientists to limit the number of boozy beverages is part of an anti-alcohol agenda and fear it will lead to stricter regulations.
- But proponents of limited drinking say laws on alcohol are too lax and lead to worse health even among people who are not addicted.
- “Drinking less is better than drinking more,” said a scientist who advised the government on dietary guidelines.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The federal government’s newest round of dietary guidelines are coming soon, and the advice under consideration is sure to spark debate headed into the holidays: No more than one alcoholic drink for men.
That’d be a big change from the last 30 years of alcohol guidance that said men could have two drinks a day and still be healthy. As for women, the guidelines aren’t expected to shift: Female drinkers are already advised to cut themselves off after one alcoholic beverage a day.
Nothing is final yet.
It’s up to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to decide whether to accept recommendations made earlier this summer by a government-appointed independent panel of 20 doctors and scientists.
Should the administration go with the recommendation for stricter drinking guidelines, it would be among the final acts of an outgoing teetotaler president handing power over to another non-drinker. President Donald Trump has said he abstains from alcohol after watching his late brother Fred Trump’s struggle with alcoholism.
President-elect Joe Biden, who’ll be sworn-in on January 20, has said too many members in his family have battled alcoholism and he doesn’t drink because he believes there’s a genetic reason behind the problem.
At issue are the so-called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which must be updated every five years to account for the latest science on health and eating. The next round of changes are due by the end of the year and as always are the subject of intense lobbying because they affect the bottom lines of the food and beverage industries.
Like the famous “food pyramid” and presidential physical fitness tests, the guidelines coming out soon are sure to influence the American public’s attitudes about nutrition. But they go beyond that too and sway doctor recommendations, federal food assistance programs, and government health reports. A lot of money is also at stake for alcohol companies, bars, and restaurants whenever the guidelines are released.
Alcohol and retail groups — and even Harvard scientists who worked on previous guidelines — oppose the panel’s latest advice for men. They argue the process for issuing the recommendation was flawed and erodes its credibility. They worry moderate drinking is being demonized and conflated with binge drinking, and that the guidelines would set the stage for anti-alcohol state laws.
“If the dietary guidelines do change, all of a sudden there’s a bigger pool of what the government sees as alcohol abusers,” Jackson Shedelbower, a spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, told Insider. The trade group represents restaurants.
Certain public health groups counter that the science about drinking — even lightly — has become clearer. They have been urging people to drink less and are pushing for stronger restrictions on alcohol, saying it leads to a range of health problems and carries severe economic costs.
“The less people drink in general, the healthier they are,” said Alicia Sparks, senior associate at the consulting and research firm Abt Associates and vice chairperson of the US Alcohol Policy Alliance, which supports alcohol control.
Alcohol industry groups, some scientists, and as well as some Republican and Democratic lawmakers have accused the panel of using studies outside of its scope to support its conclusions on alcohol. They also point to a section of the panel’s report that says “only one study examined differences among men comparing one versus two drinks” to say that there isn’t enough evidence to support a change in drinking guidelines.
“To preserve the credibility of this widely used government resource, it is critical that the guidance on alcohol continue to provide realistic, science-based information,” said Sam Zakhari, chief scientific advisor for the Distilled Spirits Council. Zakhari was once a top government alcohol researcher and a director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
But researchers who sat on the panel that made the recommendation pushed back on the criticism directed at them.
“The guidelines are trying to inform people so they can make decisions if they want to factor health into the decision,” said Timothy Naimi, an alcohol researcher at Boston Medical Center, who was on the panel of scientists. “It doesn’t infringe on people’s liberty to drink whatever they want.”
Naimi, a former epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s alcohol program, said the scientists evaluated 60 studies that looked at the link between drinking habits and all causes of death. They also evaluated a whole range of other studies, he said, before concluding that “drinking less is better than drinking more.”
About one-sixth of adults in the US regularly binge drink, meaning they consume five alcoholic beverages for men in a sitting and four drinks for women. A third of adults are teetotalers, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. The dietary guidelines recommend people not start drinking if they already don’t.
The Health and Agriculture departments, which jointly release the guidelines every five years, don’t always take the panel’s suggestions. In the 2015 updates, the Obama administration bypassed a recommendation that the dietary guidelines nudge people toward eating less meat to help the environment.
The latest round would coincide with the coronavirus pandemic that has forced people to work from home and helped drive up alcohol consumption. A survey by the RAND Corporation released in September found that drinking had increased by 14% among adults aged 30 and above during the pandemic.
The alcohol industry has criticized the study as flawed, partly because it relied on surveys that asked people to recall their drinking patterns from a year earlier.
Officials at HHS and USDA have been mum about what they’ll do when they finalize the new guidelines. The USDA did not respond to Insider’s request for comment, including on whether the final guidelines will be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A ‘whole kitchen sink of alcohol policies’
It wouldn’t be the first time the government shifts its guidance on alcohol. In 2010 federal officials removed language declaring moderate drinking as good for heart health.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who worked in the Obama administration and is now an advisor to Biden, rankled alcohol groups in 2016 when he issued a report on addiction that recommended addressing alcoholism through imposing taxes, marketing bans, and limiting where and when alcohol could be sold.
Those recommendations were similar to the playbook used to successfully reduce smoking in the US. The main difference is government guidelines still say moderate drinking can be part of a healthy diet, while they more forcefully urge against any tobacco use.
“He suggested this whole kitchen sink of alcohol policies,” Shedelbower from the American Beverage Institute said of Murthy. “What these policies do is they lump in moderate drinkers with alcohol abusers.”
Recommendations about reducing drinking or stricter regulations are controversial because of the US’ failed history with Prohibition. Drinking is a big part of American socializing, whether at sporting events or holiday gatherings, and alcohol sales support millions of jobs and businesses.
Some like H. Westley Clark, a former director at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, view the dietary guidelines as a more subtle way to influence alcohol policy. Clark warned in public comments that they could be used as “a sleight of hand vehicle for Prohibition” even though they’re framed as merely being guidelines for people.
Despite warnings from some public health groups, alcohol restrictions have become more relaxed over the years. During the coronavirus pandemic, many states and localities for the first time allowed restaurants to deliver alcohol to consumers. The National Restaurant Association has said that was a crucial step to help restaurants make up lost revenue.
But groups pushing for alcohol control view those changes with alarm.
“The more accessible and available alcohol is, the greater the harm and the greater the underage drinking rate,” said Sparks of the Alcohol Policy Alliance. “While we are certainly concerned about small businesses and the economy, we really do need to prioritize health and safety as well.”
The CDC has increasingly warned of the links between moderate drinking and cancer. It has recommended states limit access to alcohol even as the industry says cancer studies are agenda-driven and that the data is skewed by other bad behavior, such as unhealthy eating.
Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said that much of the public isn’t aware of the studies showing alcohol as a risk factor for cancer, just like smoking and obesity are. His organization has been pushing for the government to place cancer warning labels on alcoholic beverages.
“I’m not advocating for Prohibition or for all the bars to close, but there is clearly some consumption going on right now that’s not very well informed,” Gremillion said.