LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–After the federal government — for the first time ever — declared moderate alcohol consumption to be good for your health last year, a study later released by the American Cancer Society reported alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer.
An added consideration for Christians, meanwhile, is cited by Claude Witt, president of the American Council on Alcohol Problems.
“Personally, I believe that all alcohol consumption is a bad witness for any born-again believer in Christ,” said Witt, a Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission member and executive director of the Temperance League of Kentucky since 1986.
C. Ben Mitchell, consultant on bioethics to the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission and assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., agreed: “Most Southern Baptists don’t drink because to do so is a bad Christian witness, not because some health study says doing so is good or bad for you,” Mitchell said.
“Besides, what we are seeing now is really what I call the front end of a huge amount of research that is forthcoming on all the ramifications of moderate to heavy drinking,” Mitchell said. “I think it is too early to really know if it is alcohol, or some other factor, that is helping people reduce their risk of heart attacks and heart disease.”
While the apostle Paul wrote drinking wine can have a medicinal benefit, Witt said today’s medical advancements leave little or no reason to drink wine for one’s health.
“There are plenty of drugs physicians can prescribe to treat whatever maladies that the consumption of alcohol is believed to treat,” Witt said. “There are also many other things you can do, for instance, to lower your cholesterol. You can eat less, eat more nutritional foods and get more exercise.”
The conflicting medical reports involve the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines For Americans, with a first-ever pro-moderate drinking stance, and the American Cancer Society, which warn against moderate drinking for anyone under age 50.
The federal government backed pro-alcohol medicinal claims in its 1995 dietary guidelines, which were released early last year. In its report, the government said one alcoholic drink per day for women and two per day for men “may lower the risk of heart attacks.”
The federal dietary guidelines define one drink as five
ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. The guidelines suggest all such alcohol consumption be done only with meals.
According to American Cancer Society guidelines released last September, however, the risk of several forms of cancer “increases with the amount of alcohol consumed and may start to rise with intake of as few as two drinks a day.” Even so, the society said moderate drinking is so good for the hearts of men age 50 and above and women age 60 and above that the “cardiovascular benefits may outweigh the risk of cancer.”
The Christian Life Commission has been among various groups joining in a Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems, which in conjunction with the Center for Science in the Public Interest has underscored medical studies reporting few, if any, benefits from alcohol consumption, while contending that key studies in support of alcohol consumption for health benefits are flawed. The coalition also has been vocal in combatting the growing acceptance by Americans that alcohol is not only an accepted part of life, but essential to living the good life.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, for example, an extremely costly means of countering persuasive TV advertising of alcoholic drinks.
The center’s Times ad listed several dozen supporting groups and agencies, including the Christian Life Commission.
“Even moderate drinking can lead to increased susceptibility to a number of different types of cancer, to obesity, fetal alcohol syndrome for pregnant women, metabolic conditions … . The list goes on and on,” said George Hacker, director of the Washington-based center’s alcohol policies project.
“You have to understand what is behind the government’s growing acceptance of moderate drinking,” Hacker said. “There are very powerful, very wealthy alcohol industry groups that spend millions of dollars per year promoting drinking and pushing for legislation which endorses their claims for medicinal benefits.”
The Wine Institute alone has a very active lobbying arm which maintains an ongoing dialogue going with members of Congress, governors and state legislators, Hacker said.
“There is a great deal of pressure on those who control local, state and federal legislation to ease up on alcohol restrictions,” he said. “The battle also is being waged, perhaps even more intensely, on college campuses around the nation.”
The center, which often pays for its own medical, toxicological and nutritional studies, also is known for its reports that many popular Oriental, Italian and Spanish/Mexican food entrees are not healthy but are very high in cholesterol, saturated and unsaturated fats and sodium.
“In regard to alcohol consumption, our position is the evidence at this point is fairly relative and that there is an epidemiological link between moderate drinking and the reduced risk of heart disease in older people, generally,” Hacker said.
“But that finding, however, is insufficient for a generalized recommendation that would promote drinking, even moderate drinking, in the general population. What we’re opposed to is the deliberate use of the federal government’s report for marketing purposes by the alcoholic beverage industry, most notably the wine industry,” Hacker said.
Alcohol consumption among the nation’s youth “can only be considered a pediatric disaster,” Hacker reminded, listing the following facts:
— The medium age at which children begin drinking is just over 13. Roughly two-thirds of eighth-grade students have tried an alcoholic beverage.
— The 1995 National Institute on Drug Abuse “Monitoring the Future” study found that 15 percent of eighth-graders, 24 percent of 10th-graders and 30 percent of 12th-graders reported drinking five or more drinks in a row within two weeks of the survey.
— Fifty-two percent of 12th-graders reported having been drunk within the year. Among eighth- and 10th-graders, the reported drunkenness during the year was 18 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
— Studies show the earlier children begin to drink, the more likely they are to become heavy drinkers, use illicit drugs and suffer problems related to their alcohol and drug use.
— In 1993, nearly 10 percent of clients admitted to state-funded alcohol treatment programs were under age 21 — more than 110,000 young people.
— The federal Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are 11 million underage alcohol consumers in America. Of that number, 2 million drink heavily.
— Alcohol is the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. They die in alcohol-related car crashes, drownings, fires, homicides and suicides.
Claude Witt knows well the loses alcohol can render on families — even innocent ones. His father and uncle were killed by drunk drivers in the 1940s when Witt was just coming into his teens. By seeming coincidence, he was elected to the Youth Temperance Council in Kentucky at age 15 –just a few months after his father was killed.
“I came to realize as I grew up that alcohol was and is a large deterrent to Christian discipleship,” Witt said. “It never brings peace, joy or contentment, only disharmony and division.”
Witt said he believes when the Bible says people shouldn’t get drunk with wine, it means they shouldn’t drink at all.
In Proverbs’ warning against lingering over wine, gazing at it when it is red and sparkles in the cup, Witt again maintained it does not embrace drinking only in moderation.
“I just don’t believe that God is the kind of God who is going to make something to put inside our bodies which could cause us not to recognize who God is and what he is all about,” Witt said.
Will Dodson, CLC director of governmental relations and legal counsel in Washington, said he knows many people “who have a problem believing that as Christians they should not drink at all.” But, Dodson said, the incessant bombardment of television, radio and newspaper ads highlighting a lifestyle built around recreation alcohol consumption can prove to be as morally destructive for Christians as they can be for the lost.
“We’ll have to fight to bring out the truth about the negative consequences of drinking, even moderate drinking, for years to come,” Dodson said.