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HEALTH BENEFITS OF DRINKING GREATLY EXAGGERATED

It was in Chicago in 1997 when the alarm first sounded. At an alcohol policy conference, delegates from around the world were warned: Over the next five years, the most formidable challenge faced by those of us who work to prevent and treat alcohol problems would be a concerted campaign to stress the health benefits of moderate drinking.

Now it's eight years and counting. With enviable predictability, the reports, studies and press releases keep appearing, one after another, as if off an assembly line. And the newspapers, morning shows and news magazines pick them up for a public eager to believe that indulgence can actually be good for them.

Just a few such stories, from just this year: "Moderate drinking may stem brain decline." "Low alcohol consumption prevents stroke." "Wine is heart healthy for women." Wine, beer and even a modest martini have been touted as beneficial for everything from gallstones to Alzheimer's disease. And yet the preponderance of opinion among alcohol researchers maintains that there is no net health benefit to be derived from consuming alcohol.

Shouldn't the sheer profusion (and measured pace) of these "breakthrough" studies raise even a hint of skepticism? After all, medical research costs money -- a lot of money over a long time. Proposals must be made, protocols established, blind tests conducted, results peer-reviewed, findings published.

But when it comes to investigating these exuberant claims about alcohol, the media have been oddly uninquisitive. What happened to the old question: Who benefits? I suggest the chief beneficiary is the alcohol industry. And, of course, Big Alcohol commands big money as well as unmatched expertise in how, and where, to deploy it.

In the absence of a smoking gun, however, isn't it enough to point out the other side of the story -- studies that show the decidedly unhealthy aspects of alcohol? For instance:

In February, Bloomberg News ran a story out of Stockholm claiming that alcohol kills and disables as many people as either tobacco or high blood pressure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of pregnant women drink, 2 percent heavily, running the risk of exposing their developing babies to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a wholly preventable disability that is the leading cause of retardation.

In 2000, the National Toxicology Program listed alcohol as a "known human carcinogen," linked to throat and esophageal cancers, especially among drinkers who smoke, and to an elevated probability of breast cancer in women.

In observing Alcohol Awareness Month during April, it's sobering to note the extent to which the public's thinking has been turned around through selective science and shrewd manipulation. Imbibing alcohol "for medicinal purposes" has been a smirking joke in our culture since long before Prohibition. But with the stream of rosy news stories that seem to confuse happy hour with a brisk workout, we seem to have forgotten the punch line.

Bill MacVicar is director of public education, Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.