Is drinking a bottle of wine really equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes?

Another contender has emerged in the on-going battle to land the most preposterous attack on the drinks industry in 2019.

Academics from the University of Southampton put out a press release this morning claiming that drinking one bottle of wine per week poses the same cancer risk as smoking five to 10 cigarettes.

The researchers have no idea what the cancer risk associated with smoking five to 10 cigarettes per week is. They also have no idea what the cancer risk associated with drinking a bottle of wine per week is.

The entire study is based on guesswork. “Alcohol and tobacco attributable fractions were subtracted from lifetime general population risks of developing alcohol- and smoking-related cancers, to estimate the lifetime cancer risk in alcohol-abstaining non-smokers,” said the authors. “This was multiplied by the relative risk of drinking ten units of alcohol or smoking ten cigarettes per week, and increasing levels of consumption.”

What that means is that they simply took a stab in the dark. They estimated that one bottle of wine a week increases a man’s lifetime risk of cancer by 1% per cent and a woman’s by 1.4%, because “breast cancer is particularly affected by alcohol”. They then estimated that this is equivalent to five cigarettes a week for men and 10 for women, although there are no scientific facts underpinning these guesses.

Experts cannot quantify the risks of drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, and more evidence exists to suggest that it is actually beneficial to one’s health.

Nevertheless, this study generated a huge blitz of media coverage. Sky News, the BBC, The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Star, The Scotsman, Yahoo News, The Sun, The Independent, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard all published stories based on the press release, and anyone merely looking at the headlines might be alarmed.

“Risk of getting cancer from drinking just one bottle of wine is the same as smoking up to 10 CIGARETTES a week,” roared the Daily Mail, for example.

Sky News did provide one helpful quote from Jane Green, a professor of epidemiology at Oxford, who said: “It is important to view these results in context. For both men and women in the UK the lifetime risk of cancer is around 50%.

“The authors estimate that lifetime risk is around 1% higher for men and women who drink a bottle of wine a week, or who smoke five to 10 cigarettes a week, than for those who neither smoke nor drink.”

Cancer Research UK added that smoking causes many more types of cancer, while John Britton, director of the UK centre for tobacco and alcohol studies at the University of Nottingham, said smoking is substantially more hazardous than alcohol consumption.

Chris Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs, delivered a typically scathing rebuttal to this latest salvo in the “campaign to turn alcohol into the new tobacco”.

He said: “Its authors say that their intention is to provide ‘a useful measure for communicating possible cancer risks that exploits successful historical messaging on smoking’. They insist that they are ‘not saying that drinking alcohol in moderation is in any way equivalent to smoking’.

“Yeah, right. The only reason this study was conducted was to generate headlines to the effect of ‘drinking is as bad as smoking’ – and it has worked. The ‘study’ might boost the impact factor of the journal that published it, but it has no academic merit. There is no reason for it to exist other than as propaganda.”

He then concluded that “being teetotal does the same damage to your heart as smoking five cigarettes a week” to expose the ludicrous nature of the study’s assumptions.

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, dismissed the study as “absurd”. “It is irresponsible and confusing to try to equate the risks of smoking and drinking alcohol,” she said. “The impact on health from smoking is clear. This study risks undermining important messages about the dangers of smoking.”

The Alcohol Information Partnership added: “The conclusions drawn from this study are both unhelpful and confusing at a time when the public is being bombarded with contradictory warnings of risk.

“There are a wide variety of genetic and lifestyle factors that can contribute to an increased risk of cancer and the study itself is clear that drinking in moderation is not equivalent to smoking.”

Yet perhaps the most sinister reaction came from Bob Patton, of the University of Surrey, who said: “It is likely that the findings from this study will have a profound effect on the way drinkers, and in particular female drinkers, regard the risks associated with alcohol consumption.

“Viewing alcohol drinking in the same light as cigarette smoking may well result in a decrease in consumption and its related harms.”

It may not be true, but the study may well result in a decrease in alcohol consumption anyway, simply due to the barrage of headlines plastered all over the press today.

Read this analysis for a full breakdown of the shaky nature of the study.

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