Magazine article Insight on the News

Drink to Your Heart's Content?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Drink to Your Heart's Content?

Article excerpt

Researchers say moderate boozing promotes good health, and the alcohol industry is seizing the day.

Poking fun at the day's headlines in his opening monologue, Tonight Show host Jay Leno aimed in early February at a new study that reported moderate drinking may help prevent blood clots and improve circulation in the legs. To Leno, the study's findings seemed absurd: If that's so, he asked, how come drunks are always falling down?

Although the study, which appeared in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, got laughs from Leno's audience, many government agencies, public-health organizations and leading medical journals are taking a serious look at the potential health benefits of moderate drinking. More than 100 studies have found that it substantially reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and that moderate drinkers live longer, healthier lives than teetotalers.

While noting that excessive drinking causes more than 100,000 alcohol-related deaths a year, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that if Americans stopped drinking altogether, an additional 81,000 people a year would die of heart disease.

Eric Rimm, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, tells Insight that alcohol reduces the risk of heart problems--probably because of its apparent ability to raise levels of HDL or "good" cholesterol and prevent blood clotting, as the study ridiculed by Leno had found, as well as for other unknown reasons. Rimm's study in the British Medical Journal concluded that all types of alcoholic beverages appear to yield the same cardiovascular benefits.

Alcohol's potential health benefits are affecting the public-policy debate on issues ranging from excise taxes to advertising restrictions. And, although much has been written about the power and influence of the tobacco lobby, big alcohol may have even more of a presence on Capitol Hill. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based campaign watchdog group, the alcohol industry gave candidates nearly $4.4 million in 1994, almost twice as much as tobacco.

Annual retail sales for all alcohol beverages total $104 billion a year and generate $17.5 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenues, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS. Currently, the entire industry is embroiled in a controversy surrounding DISCUS' lifting of its 60-year-old voluntary ban on broadcast ads for liquor, which has led to renewed attacks on all alcohol advertising.

Alcohol trade associations promote positive information about moderate drinking to legislators, government agencies and the media, and they seem to be getting results. …

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