Amid efforts to curb binge drinking in Wisconsin, large study quashes purported health benefits of alcohol

Analysis concludes heavy drinkers face higher risks of death, makes no conclusions about whether light or moderate drinking is harmful

Cases of beer
In this Nov. 8, 2018, file photo, cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors Light are stacked next to each other in a Milwaukee liquor store. Ivan Moreno/AP Photo

A review of more than 100 studies pours cold water on the fable that alcohol consumption offers long-term health benefits.

Neither low nor moderate levels of drinking reduce the risk of death by any cause, according to the analysis published by the JAMA Network that’s drawn nationwide attention.

“If you’re drinking one to two drinks (per day) because it’s good for you, it doesn’t necessarily increase the length of your life,” said Dr. Patrick Remington, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison medical school. “There’s no evidence in this large, well-designed study of a life-extending benefit.”

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Amid Wisconsin’s reputation for binge drinking, Remington said an equally important finding of the study is that heavy drinkers face significantly higher risk of death.

“Those increased risks from heavier drinking, although it didn’t grab the headlines, that’s still there,” Remington said recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time.”

Wisconsin cities typically dominate lists of the country’s drunkest places. In 2020, the state experienced its largest year-to-year rise in alcohol-induced deaths in more than two decades. Wisconsin residents binge drink more often than nationwide rates, according to a 2019 report by the UW-Madison Population Health Institute.

Remington, an emeritus director of the UW-Madison Preventive Medicine Residency program, said the recent study from researchers out of universities in Canada and the United Kingdom aims to effectively summarize the best research available. Rather than relying on isolated findings from a single analysis, the study draws conclusions from a collection of scientific reports.

Remington emphasized the nuanced finding of the study. While it invalidates the notion that low or moderate drinking reduces the risk of death, the study reaches no conclusion on whether low or moderate drinking is harmful.

“It’s the adage: all things in moderation,” he said. “Now, again, that comes with some caveats. You don’t want to drink and drive. Some people who may have a history of alcohol or substance abuse in their family may want to avoid alcohol.”

Remington said people tend to under-report how much they drink. Generally, the levels of drinking are roughly measured as:

  • Light drinking is about one drink per day.
  • Moderate drinking is about two drinks per day.
  • Heavy drinking is three drinks or more per day.

Remington said people will need to evaluate the risks of drinking for themselves.

“Most people don’t make the decision to drink based on extending their life,” he said. “I think (alcohol) is deeply embedded in our culture and more related to our interests, social activities and entertainment.”

READ MORE: Bill would allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in Wisconsin

READ MORE: ‘Rising tide:’ Growing number of sober, non-alcoholic bars spreading across Wisconsin

READ MORE: One woman reflects on costs of alcoholism as Wisconsin loses more and more lives

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