It was with some trepidation that I clicked through to see what New York Times columnist Mark Bittman had written under the headline "The Drinker's Manifesto." But Bittman, who is generally more knowledgeable and interesting as a food writer than as an op-ed pundit, makes some valid points about the traditional "public health" approach to alcohol:
Two-thirds of us drink, and many of us either underestimate the amount we do or actually lie about it. In Britain, for example, drinking reported to health professionals accounts for only about 60 percent of the alcohol sold. I lie to my doctors about drinking, because by official standards I drink too much and I don't want to be scolded.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that men drink too much when we consume 15 "drinks" a week (a drink is a 5-ounce glass of wine, a shot of spirits or a beer); women get to have only 8. (Women generally weigh less than men, and alcohol may have more ill effects on women.) You also drink too much if you consume five drinks within three hours; that's a binge. And, according to the C.D.C., one drink is one too many for people under 21 years of age. Which is absurd, even if it's the law.
The C.D.C. flatly says drinking too much is "dangerous," which is pretty vague, and can "lead to heart disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, motor-vehicle crashes, and violence."
Many of these dangerous effects are indirect and can be mitigated: If you don't have sex or get into a car after drinking, you can't possibly get pregnant or in a car accident….The more direct ones, like heart disease and breast cancer, have so many risk factors that drinking may perhaps be discounted, especially in moderation. And there's evidence that drinking "the right amount"—which is less than "too much"—can be good for you….
If we're reasonably responsible individuals, these are private matters whose consequences are borne by ourselves.
Bittman is right to be skeptical of the CDC's drinking recommendations, which lack a firm scientific basis. The existing evidence suggests that the CDC's guidelines are excessively conservative, which helps explain why other governments' definitions of moderation are often more generous. Furthermore, the scientific literature on this question is almost certainly biased toward less drinking because of the underreporting that Bittman notes. If people routinely underestimate how much they drink, the actual levels of consumption associated with good health are probably higher than the research indicates.
Bittman also makes the point that pleasure, which the CDC's analysis completely ignores, should count for something. "We drink because we want to, not because it's good for us," he writes. "Whether you believe that alcohol is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy…or that God has nothing to do with this, it's clear that alcohol can bring both joy and pain."
Bittman's discussion of drinking is admirably calm, presumably because he likes to drink. That suspicion is confirmed by his conclusion:
Of course there are people who really drink too much, and we should continue to discourage overconsumption, but once again when it comes to public health we fail to prioritize correctly. The C.D.C. says that excessive alcohol consumption causes 88,000 deaths a year and "costs the economy about $224 billion." Obesity-related illnesses cause somewhere around 112,000 deaths, and cost maybe a trillion dollars.
You don't see the C.D.C. saying that people under 21 years of age "drink too much" if they consume a can of soda. But it should.
In short, there is nothing wrong with consuming more alcohol than the CDC thinks you should, but any amount of sugar-sweetened soda is too much. Note that the death tolls and cost estimates cited by Bittman were generated by the same agency whose drinking advice he distrusts. But even assuming they are accurate, they do not prove what he thinks they do.
Like Bittman, I eschew sugar-sweetened soft drinks and have been known to consume more alcohol than the government deems proper. Still, I recognize the absurdity of the distinction he is trying to draw. If it is possible to drink alcohol responsibly, surely if it is possible to drink soda responsibly. And if the consequences of drinking alcohol, provided you are "reasonably responsible," are "private matters," it is hard to see why the consequences of drinking soda are a legitimate subject of public concern. Like Bob Tyrrell, Bittman is simply elevating his own tastes into moral imperatives under the guise of science.