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NBCNews.com Hypes Danger of Moderate Drinking

Promotes study linking alcohol to cancer deaths, but ignores critics of the science.

Both NBCNews.com and CBS Boston recently touted study linking even 1.5 drinks a day, or less to certain types of cancer. That study has been criticized for “questionable assumptions,” but neither story pointed that out.

NBC’s JoNel Aleccia wrote that “booze can be blamed for nearly 20,000 deaths a year -- and it’s not just the heavy drinkers.” Aleccia was touting a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which drew a number of conclusions about drinking and cancer.

NBC quoted the study’s director, Dr. Timothy Naimi, referred to alcohol as a “leading cause of death.” He also dismissed claims that small amounts of alcohol could improve heart health and cholesterol levels, claiming that these things could just as easily be coincidental. He disaparaged such studies saying, “And we’ve always been in search of snake oil.”

But Naimi’s study has critics as well. One of them is Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, MD, Professor of Medicine & Public Health, at Boston University School of Medicine.

The study claimed that not only did alcohol cause roughly 3.2% to 3.7% of all U.S. cancer deaths, but more than a third of those alcohol-caused cancer cases happened to people who only drank moderate or small amounts of alcohol. “[C]onsuming just 1.5 drinks a day -- or less -- was associated with up to 35 percent of those cancer deaths, suggesting that any alcohol use carries some risk,” Aleccia said, citing the study.

However, Dr. Ellison countered this claim, saying that, “Physiologic studies suggest that these are not diseases of light to moderate drinkers, as a certain amount of alcohol is required to produce these diseases.”

Ellison further criticized the study for failing to put results in perspective, “Given that almost all prospective studies show that regular moderate drinkers have better health as they age and live longer than lifetime abstainers, even papers focused on the effects of alcohol on any particular disease should present a balanced view on its net effects on health and disease.” He also said that some of the results that the authors of this study came up with were based on “questionable assumptions.”