No Charlie Brown, Wine Is Not as Dangerous as Cigarettes

A study comparing alcohol consumption with smoking is nothing but truthiness disguised as science
No Charlie Brown, Wine Is Not as Dangerous as Cigarettes
Not a recommended pairing (iStock)
Apr 30, 2019

“Do you see this tree? It's called a fir tree. It's called a fir tree because it gives us fur—for coats. It also gives us wool in the wintertime.”—Lucy van Pelt

I recently took my 9- and 5-year-old sons to see the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. They're at the perfect age for the show based on Charles Schultz's Peanuts, and I have a soft spot for it: I played Charlie Brown in a camp production at age 11.

The boys' favorite song is “Little Known Facts,” where Lucy explains interesting facts to her little brother Linus, all of which are complete nonsense. “Facts” like you can tell how old a tree is by counting its leaves, and sparrows grow up to become eagles, and snow sprouts from the ground in winter.

Charlie Brown listens to all of this in growing horror, and finally speaks up, telling Lucy snow falls from the sky. But Lucy, never lacking for self confidence, insists, “After it comes up, the wind blows it around so it looks like it's coming down. But actually it comes up out of the ground like grass!” she yells with increasing fervor. “It comes up, Charlie Brown! Snow comes up!”

Charlie Brown gives up at this point and starts smacking his head against a tree. Lucy explains that he's loosening the bark to help it grow faster.

My kids love the song because they think it's absurd anyone would say snow sprouts like flowers. Grownups find it funny because they recognize that some people believe if you repeat a falsehood with enough conviction, people will believe you.

You ever get the sense there are a whole lot of Lucy van Pelts in the world today?

We've seen hundreds of cases of measles, a disease nearly eliminated from the U.S. two decades ago, break out across the country because some people insist vaccines are dangerous. Countless studies have shown otherwise, but the Lucy contingent shouts that they know better. There are plenty of other examples in our current era of perpetual outrage.

Then there are the growing number insisting that wine has no health benefits and we should all stop drinking immediately.

This is a simple declaration for a complicated subject. Decades of serious health research has shown an association between moderate drinking and lower mortality rates, primarily because moderate drinkers have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. On the flip side, some studies have shown an association between moderate alcohol consumption and higher rates of cancer, particularly breast cancer. And almost all research agrees that heavy drinking is bad.

Complex, right? But Lucys want simple answers.

In the past five years, some medical journals have taken the position that the studies showing wine's health benefits should be dismissed and the studies showing risk should be taken more seriously. A few of these advocates have even argued that you cannot encourage moderate drinking because people cannot control themselves and will end up drinking heavily. Simply put, all drinking must stop.

Their latest little-known fact is a March paper in BMC Public Health entitled, “How many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?”

You might think, If there are any cigarettes in my bottle of wine, I must have really ticked off the sommelier. But no, the point of the study is to compare the cancer risk of smoking with the cancer risk of drinking. Did the authors conduct research to find new data proving alcohol is a bigger cancer risk than we thought? No, that wasn't their purpose.

“There is now robust evidence that low levels of alcohol intake do not provide any protective health benefits,” they write, citing one study that was roundly criticized by most researchers. "Our estimation of a cigarette equivalent for alcohol provides a useful measure for communicating possible cancer risks that exploits successful historical messaging on smoking." So the point of the study is to find a more effective way to tell people alcohol is bad for them. It's a marketing study, not a health study.

Do the authors look at heavy drinking? No, they look at moderate drinking. “One bottle of wine per week is associated with an increased absolute lifetime cancer risk for non-smokers of 1.0 percent (men) and 1.4 percent (women). The overall absolute increase in cancer risk for one bottle of wine per week equals that of five (men) or 10 cigarettes per week (women).”

The kicker to this study is hidden in the footnotes: "We must first be absolutely clear that this study is not saying that drinking alcohol in moderation is in any way equivalent to smoking. Smoking kills up to two-thirds of its users, and cancer is just one of the many serious health consequences. This study purely addresses cancer risk in isolation." So, in the headline they ask, 'How many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?' but in the footnotes they admit the answer is zero?

Unsurprisingly, for the next few weeks, the web was filled with headlines saying that a study has found drinking is as bad as smoking.

Wine and health is a complex topic. Spreading false and flimsy fears in order to scare people away from it will simply lead to the same ignorance that fueled America's experiment with Prohibition a century ago. Excuse me while I find a tree to bang my head against and help it grow faster.

Health Cancer Opinion

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