Exceeding CMO guidelines doesn't knock years off your life, cheap clickbait wastes your time

Hysterical media coverage suggesting that exceeding the CMO drinking guidelines can shave years off your life has been met with scorn by academics, statisticians and industry insiders.

The BBC, the Guardian, the Independent and many more seized upon an alcohol harm study published in the Lancet by Cambridge University researchers.

Drinking an extra glass of wine will shorten your life, roared the Guardian, while the Telegraph said drinking more than five glasses a week will knock years off your life.

The report’s author, Cambridge academic David Spiegelhalter, was so alarmed by the BBC’s take on the study that he went public with his condemnation and forced it to alter its article.

The Cambridge University team was paid in part by the British Heart Foundation to compare the health and drinking habits of more than 600,000 people in 19 countries worldwide, controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.

According to a Cambridge University press release, it decided that the upper safe limit of drinking should be just 12.5 units per week, 1.5 units fewer than the Chief Medical Officer’s controversially low drinking guidelines that hold sway in the UK.

The release said that “drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy”, pushing jounralists to create the alarmist headlines.

“The research, published today in the Lancet, supports the UK’s recently lowered guidelines, which since 2016 recommend both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week,” said the press release, which is titled: “Drinking more than five pints a week could shorten your life, study finds.”

But Spiegelhalter was dismayed by the resulting media reports and admitted on Twitter that the team's research “does not suggest a daily strengthener is a bad thing”.

A wide range of people ripped apart the articles and urged the British public to pay them no heed. Even Colin Angus from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group and James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK – both firmly entrenched in the anti-alcohol camp – called out the headlines as ropey nonsense.

It is cheap clickbait, but this sort of thing can have a very real impact upon policy, so it is disappointing to see it given so much coverage.

Joe Fattorini was among the industry insiders to call out the nonsense in the mainstream media. “Hyperventilating absurdist headline shows BBC News didn’t actually read the study but went for sensationalist clickbait,” he said.

He went on to explain that Britain has one of the lowest recommended alcohol consumption levels in the world, he listed the health benefits of moderate consumption and asked: “Why does the medical establishment demonise wine, beer and spirits?”

Chris Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs pointed out that, tucked away on page 31 of the Cambridge University report, it said that people that enjoy alcohol but consume less than 35 units a week have a lower mortality rate than teetotallers.

“Headlines like this are grossly misleading, although the study and the press release pushed journalists in this direction,” he said.

After the BBC changed its wording, he added scathingly: “The headline has now been changed to say something that is trivially and almost tautologically true. Article’s still crap though.”

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