In a bold move, the World Heart Federation released a policy brief Thursday saying that no amount of alcohol is good for the heart.
“At the World Heart Federation, we decided that it was imperative that we speak up about alcohol and the damages to health, as well as the social and economic harms, because there is an impression in the population in general, and even among health care professionals, that it is good for the heart,” said Beatriz Champagne, chair of the advocacy committee that produced the report.
“It is not, and the evidence has increasingly shown that there is no level of alcohol consumption that is safe for health,” said Champagne, who is also executive director of the Coalition for Americas’ Health, an organization dedicated to improving health in the Americas.
Critics were swift to dispute the federation’s stance, saying that it was ignoring studies that do show a small benefit to some heart conditions when a moderate amount of alcohol is consumed.
One such study on the risks of alcohol, published in the Lancet in 2018, was extensively used in the WHF brief, “but seriously misrepresents, and selectively reports, their findings,” said David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.
“Given that the WHF report references this paper, it is really odd that their conclusion is that ‘no amount of alcohol is good for the heart,’” said Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who analyzes alcohol risks based on the Global Burden of Disease Study, which gathers worldwide data on premature death and disability from over 300 diseases.
“There are some scientific studies that support their headline, but based on my work on the Global Burden of Disease Study, which pulls together all the available evidence to date, the claim by the WHF is not supported by the scientific evidence currently available,” Gakidou said.
In response to these criticisms, Champagne sent CNN the following response:
“While we stand by our key messages, it is helpful to know that the wording of parts of the policy brief can give rise to misunderstandings. To address this we have updated the document (specifically page 8) to more clearly articulate our conclusions and specifically cite the studies by which they have been reached,” Champagne said an email.
“In brief, our position is that studies showing a significant cardioprotective effect of alcohol consumption have by-and-large been observational, inconsistent, funded by the alcohol industry, and/or not subject to randomized control. Furthermore, any potential cardioprotective effect is negated by the well-documented risks and harms, rendering our judgment that no amount of consumption can be considered good for heart health.”
The American Heart Association, which is a member of the federation, says “moderation is key” when it comes to alcohol, which is defined as no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
Dr. Mariell Jessup, the chief science and medical officer for the AHA, told CNN in an email that the AHA will “carefully review” the WHF brief. She said that the AHA had recently reviewed evidence on alcohol and cardiovascular risk for its 2021 Dietary Guidance Scientific Statement, and “we concluded that if one doesn’t drink alcohol, do not start; and if one does drink alcohol, limit intake.”
A world view
The World Health Federation is a Geneva-based health advocacy organization that represents hundreds of heart associations worldwide. It released the new policy brief, “The Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Cardiovascular Health: Myths and Measures,” to counter reports that some alcohol is OK or even good for heart health.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of several cardiovascular problems, including coronary disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke and aortic aneurysm, according to the report. Any amount of alcohol, not just heavy drinking, can lead to loss of healthy life, it says.
“Over the past several decades the prevalence of cardiovascular disease has nearly doubled, and alcohol has played a major role in the incidence of much of it,” the report says.
Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the world, disproportionately affecting people of low socioeconomic status. In 2019, nearly 2.4 million deaths – not just heart-related – could be attributed to alcohol, the report said. Alcohol negatively affects mental health, as well.
The World Health Organization has called for a 10% relative reduction in the per capita use of alcohol between 2013 and 2030, but the report said a lack of investment in proven alcohol reduction strategies, in addition to misinformation from the industry, has stymied progress toward that goal.
“The portrayal of alcohol as necessary for a vibrant social life has diverted attention from the harms of alcohol use, as have the frequent and widely publicized claims that moderate drinking, such as a glass of red wine a day, can offer protection against cardiovascular disease,” said Monika Arora, a member of the WHF Advocacy Committee and co-author of the brief, in a news release. “These claims are at best misinformed and at worst an attempt by the alcohol industry to mislead the public about the danger of their product.”