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Alcohol and cancer: journal editors say they got it wrong

In a recent editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, three scientists point out that I was correct in my February blog post, where I pointed out the errors - and the mistaken scare-mongering - in press reports of a new study on alcohol and cancer.

The JNCI editorial, titled "Promoting Healthy Skepticism in the News: Helping Journalists Get it Right" focuses on two studies, one of which is the article I wrote about. Journalists at the time, including Sanjay Gupta at CNN, reported "there is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe when it comes to cancer." As the editorial points out, the journalists got it wrong. The authors point out that other explanations (other causes besides alcohol) might explain the increased risk. And it's nice to see that even though their own journal was partly to blame for the hype back in February, at least they're making an effort to correct it now.

They could have done more, though. They didn't dig into the article and report, as I did, that the minimum risk levels in the study were for light drinkers, who had 1-2 glasses of wine per week and who had a lower risk than non-drinkers. But at least they pointed out that the absolute increase in risk, even for heavy drinkers, was very small. In fact, they go on to say that under-reporting of absolute risk is a major failing of many biomedical journals.

So my advice for the holiday season is: drink up! The evidence for heart-healthy benefits of wine, especially red wines with high levels of procyanidins (as described in this article from Nature 2006), probably outweighs any risks. Happy holidays!

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