Lawmakers Question First New Proposed Drinking Recommendations In Decades
August 31, 2020
Members of Congress are joining medical experts from around the world to criticize recommendations for the federal government to lower its official dietary guidelines for moderate drinking in men from no more than two to no more than one drink per day. The critics say the recommendations baselessly contradict decades of established science and reeks of an anti-alcohol agenda.
Letters from five senators and 28 representatives from both parties accuse the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) advising the secretaries of the US departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services of citing just one study out of 60 approved for review to reverse three decades’ worth of previous administrative guidance.
“This recommendation runs directly contrary to the DGAC’s charter requiring that recommendations are based on the ‘preponderance’ of current science,” reads the letter from the representatives. “We request information from your Agencies about how this conclusion was reached, considering the lack of scientific evidence to justify any change in current moderate drinking recommendations.”
The Scientific Report prepared by DGAC claims that for men a “modest but meaningful increase” in longterm risk of death exists for two versus one drink per day. Further, the committee shines doubt on any health benefits to moderate drinking and says emerging evidence suggests moderate drinking may be more dangerous than once believed.
The DCAG committee, which advises the two agencies on the dietary guidelines, reviews the latest science to potentially update them every five years. In doing so, members of the review committee appoint subcommittees to evaluate pre-approved studies that examine, in this case, what quantity of alcohol consumption appears to increase morbidity rates from all causes. Opponents of the recommendations say just one study looked at the possibility of a greater risk of death from drinking up to two alcoholic beverages per day rather than just one. Also running counter to the DCAG’s charter, the subcommittee that recommended the change acknowledges that it examined studies not approved for this process.
In their letters, which support these testimonials submitted by medical experts, elected officials also question why a subcommittee first left its recommendations to the advisory committee relatively untouched from previous years then reversed course to issue the new suggestions a few weeks later.
Sam Zakhari, chief scientific advisor for the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) trade group that’s opposing the downgrade, says, “There were very serious violations of scientific protocol regarding this proposal that need careful review. … It doesn’t take a scientist to see that the process was seriously flawed and that this proposal appears to be based on preconceived opinions, not science.”
One new DCAG member charged with evaluating alcohol guidelines is Tim Naimi, an alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center (formerly at the Centers for Disease Control) and a professor at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. He co-chairs the upcoming Alcohol Policy Conference for international public health activists whose goals include advancing “rational alcohol policies, with an emphasis on offsetting the public costs of alcohol use, by illuminating and influencing policy-making processes.”
Naimi’s published studies, quotes in articles and highlighted social media feeds suggest a strong antipathy toward alcoholic beverage consumption.
He comments in a recent press release announcing the conclusions of a study for which he served as senior author, “The disparity between alcohol-related cost to government and alcohol taxes amounts to a large taxpayer-funded subsidy of excessive drinking and alcohol companies.”
Naimi did not respond to an email requesting a comment. The USDA, while choosing not to comment for the record, did offer assistance with this story.
An unscientific evaluation of the more than 1,700 written alcohol-related comments submitted after the DGAC published its Scientific Report containing the draft recommendations shows more than 75% copied a template to express opposition to the changes.
Of the others, the majority wrote in support for the changes and claimed earlier guidance was predicated on industry-funded studies. Though it’s not clear if any members of Congress wrote in favor of the changes, it appears many of the letters in favor came from anti-alcohol organizations, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that formed in the 19th century to shut down saloons and eventually lobby for Prohibition.
Some mistakenly cite increased drinking as a concern, though the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that rates of current, heavy and binge alcohol use among adults 18 and over has remained steady or decreased slightly since the years used as comparison – 2002, 2015 and 2015, respectively.
And at least one incorrectly stated that COVID-era drinking is up, which I predicted would happen in this story from June.
New Futures, a non-profit that works through policy change to reduce drinking in New Hampshire, wrote, “This has resulted in people putting in place patterns of heavier drinking. New Futures supports these evidenced based statements on the harms and risks of alcohol consumption instead of false messages from the alcohol industry.”
The committee has increased its transparency and responsiveness to the public this cycle. For the first time, it took input from the public on the dietary topics to focus on, and it later added a new second hearing to take oral comment on the Scientific Report that forms the basis for the final guidelines. It also held a public meeting outside Washington, D.C. for the first time in 30 years, and, as usual, solicited nominations for members to comprise the DGAC. The agencies selected 20 members out of 180 nominations and received approximately 112,000 written comments on the process between 2018 and summer 2020.
The committee left the women’s moderate drinking recommendations untouched at one drink per day. The final dietary guidelines will be issued before the end of the year.