Mixing Agenda and Science: a Formula for Public Misconception
October is Breast Cancer awareness month—a time to remember friends and loved ones that have passed and promote cutting-edge research and early screenings that will prevent future deaths.
However, many are pushing an alternative agenda. Activist researchers and a variety of media sources are focusing on the recently conjured connection between consuming the slightest amount of alcohol and breast cancer.
It’s no secret that chronic, heavy consumption—along with poor nutrition, lack of exercise and smoking—can lead to a number of cancers. Associating these behaviors with deadly conditions isn’t the problem. In fact, it should be part of the solution.
For the most part, it already is. Everyone knows that smoking is unhealthy. Everyone knows that daily exercise is beneficial to one’s health. And yes, everyone knows that consistently consuming ten drinks a day is harmful.
To stay relevant, public health officials and activists are pushing the envelope further—that is, further from settled and compelling science. They have begun to label moderate responsible drinking—which according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines is one or two drinks a day—with the same consequences associated with legitimately dangerous drinking habits and other behaviors.
In reality, the health effects of enjoying a glass of your favorite beer, wine or spirit and the results of harmful drinking couldn’t be more different.
The moderate consumption of alcohol has been proven time and time again to be part of a healthy lifestyle—scientifically justified to have a protective effect against conditions like coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. It has even been shown to correlate with a reduction in overall mortality.
But these conclusions are ignored in favor of public alarm.
Headlines like “Just one alcoholic drink a day increases the risk of breast cancer, study says” run rampant. This study, specifically, claims that a single daily drink can increase the risk of breast cancer by five percent. But what does that really mean? According to the National Cancer Institute, the average 40-year-old woman has a 1.44 percent chance of developing breast cancer before turning 50. When combining these two assertions, the real risk of breast cancer after enjoying one drink per day would increase by less than a tenth of a percent—hardly a breakthrough in need of a bombastic headline.
While headline-grabbing researchers and overzealous writers portray a single drink as a major catalyst to the formation of cancer, they fail to bring up a number of other factors that have been scientifically proven to increase the risk considerably.
One of the largest contributing factors is family history and genetics. According to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, the risk of diagnosis for women with a significant family history of breast cancer—excluding BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations—quadruples from the baseline. When including women who test positive for those genetic mutations, the estimated lifetime risk of breast cancer is even greater at 40 percent.
Other factors that have been associated with a cancer diagnosis include diet, smoking habits, demographics and even the age at which a woman gets pregnant. But because alcohol is sexy, it often becomes the focal point of attention.
The devil is in the details. Focusing public attention on a breast cancer factor that is, at worst, responsible for a relatively meaningless fraction of risk while largely ignoring robust associations not only shows questionable judgment but irresponsibly substitutes an agenda for a solution. Americans should not fret over having a drink with dinner when they could be altering other behaviors or getting screened for genetic markers that would have a much greater impact.
Let’s raise a glass to settled and constructive science, not overhyped assertions.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.